Look, big brother … no hands! Honest!

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The key for automakers and suppliers regarding hands-free technology, as with most technologies, is to integrate it into the vehicle in a way that is easy to understand and operate, yet sophisticated enough to handle all of the tasks that drivers expect. The engineering is extremely complex, but the driver interface has to be simple.” –Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global vehicle research, J.D. Power and Associates

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The big highway safety bugaboo consuming a hefty amount of time and effort within the Department of Transportation (DOT) over the last couple of years centers on ways to reduce – if not eliminate – what’s come to be called “distracted driving.”

While some may pooh-pooh the threat level distracted driving poses, government officials are taking a very hard line on the subject, with numbers to back up their position. For example, according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report issued last year, distracted driving-related crashes caused nearly 5,500 deaths and 450,000 injuries during 2009.

“We believe that this data represents only the tip of the iceberg because police reports in many places do not routinely document whether distraction was a factor in vehicle crashes,” noted Ray LaHood, U.S. Transportation Secretary, during a speech on this topic last September.

As a result of NHTSA’s findings, DOT went on the warpath (so to speak), creating tougher laws forbidding distracted driving, as well as calling for more effective enforcement, public education, and personal responsibility.

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Truckers were right in the initial cross hairs, too, on this issue, with the DOT crafting and passing a rule in 2010 banning commercial bus and truck drivers from texting on the job, followed rapidly by a similar rule restricting train operators from using cell phones and other electronic devices while in the conductor’s seat. The agency has also initiated rulemaking to limit commercial truck driver use of all electronic devices while transporting hazardous materials.

Of course, it’s easy to make laws that ban certain activities, but it’s quite another to get humans to comply via behavioral changes. That becomes even more challenging when the very technologies that DOT believes contribute the most to distracted driving – cell phones – are also relied upon heavily by everyday motorists and truck drivers alike to help them when lost, keep in touch while traveling, etc.

Yet solutions to this technological conundrum are rapidly being deployed to offer “hands free” capability to drivers of all sorts of vehicles – and in many cases, “hands free” capability may just become required technology by all drivers, to the point where if a certain brand of car or truck lacks it, it won’t be bought.

[Take a look at Peterbilt Motor Co.’s new “SmartNav” system – called “NavPlus” in Kenworth-branded trucks – as an example of what kinds of “hands free” technologies are coming down the pike for truck drivers.]

“As state and local governments are enacting distracted-driver laws, consumers are increasingly looking for technology solutions to legally and safely make calls, get directions or check email while driving,” noted Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global vehicle research for J.D. Power and Associates in a recent report the firm issued on the subject.

“With government-imposed restrictions on the use of handheld phones while driving, the onus is on the automakers and their technology partners to find simple and effective solutions that will keep consumers happy while staying within the law,” he said.

“Technology providers that can best enable consumers to stay informed, connected and secure while driving stand to gain the most,” VanNieuwkuyk added. “Automakers may benefit from this new environment, but also take the risk that a suboptimal solution will create consumer dissatisfaction, damage their brand reputation and reduce consumer loyalty.”

J.D. Power’s 2011 U.S. Automotive Emerging Technologies study (conducted last month) found that out of 18,000 vehicles owners it polled, the vast majority (86%) of “smart phone” owners indicate that they use their device while in their vehicle, with the two most common activities making or receiving calls and getting directions.

When given the opportunity to select which of 21 technologies included in the study they would like to have on their next vehicle at their respective market prices, while wireless connectivity systems receive the third-highest level of interest (50%) among the technologies included in the study.

[Here’s a look at how Ford Motor Co.’s new “Sync” system allows for a variety of technologies to be operated “hands free."]

Additionally, J.D. Power found interest in the “wireless connectivity” feature remains fairly strong across all age groups, with a high of 57% of 18-25 year olds and a low of 43% of 57-65 year olds expressing an interest after they've seen the price tag.

“Consumers want to make use of their smart phones while driving, and most are willing to pay for the technology that enables this,” said VanNieuwkuyk, especially for technologies they perceive will keep them safe.

Features such as remote vehicle diagnostics, which provide owners with vital information on the performance and health of their vehicle, as well as rear-vision camera systems and blind spot detection receive among the highest levels of interest, ranging from 55% to 46% and 45%, respectively, according to J.D. Power’s poll.

“Technologies that can help prevent accidents by informing consumers of potential hazards that cannot easily be seen from the driver's seat are well received,” added VanNieuwkuyk. “These features allow consumers to stay focused on the road and drive with confidence.”

Ah, but it’s still a double-edged sword, isn’t it? For technologies that can make life on the road easier and safer for motorists and truck drivers alike is, at the same time, being viewed as a threat by the government agencies, among others. Keeping both sides happy and safe is going to be a real challenge for technology to surmount in this case.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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