SAN FRANCISCOsceen, California - When it comes to car facia displays that are more like a smart phones two things are clear: Customers want them, automakers are intent on supplying them.
But are they really a good idea?
Car companies answer with an emphatic: "Yes!" Large facia displays that behave more like a smart phones will boost revenue and attract buyers. They also insist the new screens will make driving less dangerous because of well-integrated voice controls and large touchscreens that will keep drivers from fumbling with more dangerous mobile phones.
But the increasingly elaborate screens have also sparked a broad debate about how much technology is appropriate in a car.
Joe Simitian, a foscrmer California lawmaker who led the state's laws on cellphone use while driving said:"I think the screens raise serious public-safety questions. From a legislative standpoint, this is going to be something legislators struggle with for years to come."
David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah who has written several studies on distracted driving, said: "You can't be looking at a screen and be looking at the road at the same time. The screens are enabling activities that take your eyes off the road for longer than most safety advocates would say is safe."
His research shows that reading the average text message or a function some of the screens support-takes four seconds, far longer than can be considers safe.
But for automakers and their customers, the souped-up screens are irresistible.
TECH IS KEY
In an Audi A3, for example, a driver who synchs a phone with the car can check for mentions on Twitter and see those tweets on their facia screen - although not their full Twitter stream. They can upload photos taken on a smart phones and request mapping to the place the photo was taken.
Text messages pop up on the screen, in addition to being read out.
Mark Dahncke, a spokesman for Audi, said: "If you don't provide something that is useful people will just use their smart phone and we all know that's the biggest driver distraction there is."
Up to now such technology hasn't factored highly into most car-buying decisions but automakers expect it to become increasingly important over the next three to five years.
A recent study by market research company JD Power found that about 15% of people ruled out buying a car lacking the latest technology. A year earlier the figure was four percent.
Currently, facia displays are only lightly regulated. Many states forbid the airing of non-navigational videos by drivers while a car is moving, except for safety video systems designed to help with backing-up and other tasks.
Federal motor vehicle standards stipulate only a few rules, including that the brightness on displays be adjustable.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued driver-distraction guidelines for facia displays in a moving car. They advise against displays that include photographs or moving images unrelated to driving and suggest drivers shouldn't need to tap a button or key more than six times to complete a task.
So far, however, the guidelines are voluntary.
The auto industry has issued its own voluntary guidelines but in many cases industry standards fell short of the government's. For example, the industry guidelines say drivers should be able to complete a task on the displays in a series of single glances that generally take no more than two seconds each, for a total of 20 seconds. But the government guidelines advise that drivers should be able to complete tasks in a series of 1.5 or two-second glances, for a total of no more than 12 seconds.
Some critics find even that standard too lax.
"It should be set up so people can do it in four glances," says Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety vice-president Henry Jasny, a Washington, DC-based group funded by insurers and others. His group has asked for government guidelines to become law, figuring that even imperfect mandatory rules would be better than no requirements, and that during the rule-making process, the organisation can fight for more-stringent regulation.
Auto manufacturers are incorporating popular smartphone features into displays in different ways.
Some, such as Hyundai, are simply making their displays compatible with Android and iOS, the phone software from Google and Apple, so drivers can see a bare-bones version of their phone on the screen. Other companies, among them Tesla, are creating elaborate systems that don't rely on synching with a phone but replicate many of the things for which people might use their phone - such as looking for a restaurants.
Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive for Nvidia, says making facia displays as responsive as possible with minimal glances away from the road is a major goal. Nvidia makes hardware and software for displays used by Audi and Tesla.
"What we're doing is developing graphics that are intuitive so you can gesture or swipe or zoom," Shapiro said. "Something that responds like that, and is big, is much safer than a smart phone."
A spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute said that so far insurers had not taken a stand on the new souped-up displays. A large interactive display would neither increase nor decrease policy rates, the institute said, unless it were considered valuable enough to increase the risk of theft. How do you feel about in-car technology and entertainment displays which are similar to smart phones? Does it distract you while driving or not? Email us and we'll publish your thoughts or use the Readers' Comments section below...