It only takes a few seconds – the time to key in a new command on the car’s satnav or entertainment system. And that’s when it happens…

A recent case in point was the accident on German autobahn 63, near Kaiserslautern. The driver’s attention was on the technological gadgetry, which led his minibus with four passengers to spin out of control, crash through the guardrail, and shoot across the other side of the freeway straight into a semi-trailer. The result was several severely injured people and 50,000 euros’ worth of material damage.

More and more accidents are caused by multitasking at the wheel. According to the Allianz insurance company, over one in two people program their navigation system while driving. Some 30% of drivers read text messages and e-mails, and one in five actually answers them while driving.

Driving the car becomes a secondary activity. "Around one out of ten traffic accidents are definitely due to the fact that the driver was distracted," says Allianz board member Mathias Scheuber. Young drivers are particularly at risk.

And the number of diversions is increasing. For one, car manufacturers are developing their own apps and online services. These flash across displays on the car’s dashboard. The car is connected to the Internet and goes online as soon as the motor starts.

Drivers can even tweet while driving. Audi advertises its "revolutionary infotainment and entertainment functions" and promises that the functions "bring the level of car fun and comfort to whole new levels."

But for traffic experts, even so much as a glance towards the display is too much. A mere second’s worth of distraction can have serious consequences – and one second is not enough to take in news and images, sports results, health tips, weather reports or the electronic prattling of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

An office on wheels

Even Mercedes, usually a pioneer in matters of car safety, launched a news app in late June that it advertised as a way for its customers to be kept up to date in a “user-friendly” way via the text and images flashing on their car’s display, whether the car is stationary or not.

Not to be outdone, "BMW Online" provides news text and images that the driver can scroll through using the iDrive Controller on the center console.

The German automobile association ADAC says that "any application that bears no relation to actually driving the car” should be viewed critically. Particularly risky are "applications that turn the car into the driver’s office on wheels."

Asked why Internet programs didn’t automatically fade out while the car was being driven, a BMW spokeswoman said: "Customers would go online anyway – they would just use their smart phone." So it was preferable to integrate online services. Doing so also corresponded to client expectations: particularly among the younger generation, Internet connectivity in a car has become one of the most important criteria when buying a car, she said.

In Mercedes vehicles, Internet pages fade out while the car is being driven. "Browsing the web is only possible when the car is stationary," assures Mercedes spokesman Benjamin Oberkersch.

The German Federal Ministry of Transport does not believe that additional measures are presently necessary with regard to vehicle connectivity. "We’re relying on drivers to be reasonable," said Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer, who said that he favored heightened police controls.

However: what is it exactly that should be controlled? Reading information off a screen while driving is not against the law, and the police can only intervene if a driver starts calling, e-mailing or tweeting with a hand-held smart phone.

Dictating e-mails to your car

Car manufacturers have started to implement a kind of “self-censorship” by limiting the amount of information that flashes across displays thus reducing distractions for drivers. BMW is reducing access to Twitter and Facebook while the car is en route.

The good news is that the future of online communication in cars will be very different from what it is now. Just as radio and navigation systems can presently be voice-controlled, e-mails and tweets will be read aloud by the computer and replies will also be verbal. BMW’s new 7 Series will feature this: drivers can dictate e-mails into the voice mailbox of a web provider that will then convert them into text and send them.

Mercedes is introducing something similar in Spring 2013: it plans to fully integrate the driver's iPhone and Siri into future A-Class models.

But ADAC warns that "interaction with a voice interface would represent a considerable distraction for drivers” in addition to the fact that mental energy would be focused on the interaction. Similarly to phoning, the driver would be so concentrated on his or her message that full attention would not be on driving the car. When their attention is elsewhere, drivers tend to only register the distance to the car in front of them and not take in traffic developments behind or to the sides of the vehicle, the car association says.

According to Allianz, just phoning increases the risk of accident by two to three times.

To reduce the danger of accidents caused by drivers distracted by their vehicle’s technology, experts would like to see all cars equipped the way research vehicles of some car manufacturers are: with an operating and display system that matches the ambient traffic situation to the amount of focus the driver needs to deal with it and only makes Internet reception, e-mailing and tweeting possible when the situation poses no threat. In other words: a car that feels and thinks along with you. 

Read the original article in German

Photo - OPEL