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Dashboard Distractions: New Luxuries Cause Concern

Ford's MyFord Touch interface allows users to manage phone calls, navigation, entertainment and the car's temperature through a touch screen on the dashboard. (AP)

In many ways, the Detroit Auto Show has become a kind of consumer electronics show for cars, where you're just as likely to see the rollout of a new app or entertainment system as the introduction of next year's models.

"The growth in mechanical changes [has] now become incremental, whereas the growth in the consumer electronics industry seems to be taking place at a rate that is almost unprecedented," says Thomas Tetzlaff, a spokesman for Volkswagen Canada.

Tetzlaff says the average young driver doesn't necessarily want their car to be a rolling oasis — they're more interested in staying connected to social media like Facebook or Twitter.

"We have realized that if we shut our customers out of that, they're going to shut us out of the equation," he says. "The vehicles we're showing today — although we're touting the outsides and the engines — we're cognizant of the fact that we need to bring the technology to the dashboard, to the driver."

Almost every car company, including Volkswagen, is working with outside suppliers to bring consumer electronics to the dashboard. For example, Cadillac's CUE — or Cadillac User Experience — has voice control and projects anything from a text message to a map onto the windshield in front of you. It also has a touch screen on the center console that can interact with your smartphone, the radio and the Internet.

CUE designer Matt Highstrom tried to show me how the touch screen works, but he ran into some technical difficulties. To be fair to the folks at Cadillac, we were in an auto show demo, not a working car. But the glitch we experienced gets to the heart of one problem when it comes to consumer electronics: they're prone to bugs and that can mean trouble when you're driving 65 mph.

Consumer Reports' David Champion has been a critic of many car entertainment systems — especially ones that use flat-panel screens.

"I'm an engineer and I hate to knock on engineers, but engineers want to give the system the capability of doing anything and everything that you could ever want to do," Champion says, but those capabilities can come at a price. Touch screens require that your eyes follow what your hands are doing, and that can be very distracting. Champion says that's why cars have knobs and buttons — so you can feel what you're doing without having to look.

"The driving experience is so fundamentally different than, say, the desktop experience," says Jeremy Anwyl of Edmunds.com. "Getting a bunch of guys in a room [who] used to write programs for Microsoft or whoever is probably not the right way to be thinking about this human-machine interface."

Anwyl says companies like General Motors and Honda still have a long way to go before they can become the Apple or Microsoft of dashboard technology.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And it's now for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The big auto show in Detroit is increasingly a consumer electronics show for the car. Automakers no longer simply introduce new models of cars and trucks. Now they're just as likely to rollout a new infotainment system or app.

But NPR's Sonari Glinton reports that some of these new high tech bells and whistles just aren't ready for primetime.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: It used to be that when you talk to car executives they're all about horsepower, styling, even fuel economy. Now it's all tech. Thomas Tetzlaff is with Volkswagen of Canada.

THOMAS TETZLAFF: As we've seen in the automotive industry, the growth in mechanical changes has now become incremental. Whereas the growth in the consumer electronics industry seems to be taking place at a rate that is, you know, almost unprecedented.

GLINTON: Tetzlaff says the average young driver doesn't want their car to be a rolling oasis. They want to be connected to social media like Facebook or Twitter.

TETZLAFF: We have realized that if we shut our customers out of that, they're going to shut us out of the equation. And the vehicles we're showing today - although we're touting the outside and the engines - we're cognizant of the fact that we need to bring the technology from the dashboard to the driver.

GLINTON: Almost all the car companies, including Volkswagen, are working with outside suppliers to bring consumer electronics to your dashboard. Cadillac, for instance, has what it calls CUE or Cadillac User Experience. This is the future - we're talking Jetsons. It has voice control and it projects information right onto the windshield in front of you; anything from a text message to a map. It also has a flat screen on the center console that can interact with your smartphone, the radio and the Internet.

Matt Highstrom helped design the CUE system.

MATT HIGHSTROM: So, the central console essentially has - there's an eight-inch touch screen. So, like your iPhone or your smartphone device where you can swipe things - swipe to different screens. You're able to...

GLINTON: Which didn't work right now.

HIGHSTROM: Which didn't work right now. Jason, what did you do to this?

JASON: What did I do?

HIGHSTROM: This light been working on here?

GLINTON: Now, to be fair to the folks at Cadillac, that was not a working car but an auto show demo. But that glitch on the flat screen gets to the heart of the problem with consumer electronics - they're prone to bugs, which can be a problem when you're driving 65 miles an hour.

DAVID CHAMPION: I'm an engineer and I hate to knock on engineers, but engineers want to give the system the capabilities of doing anything and everything that you could ever want to do.

GLINTON: David Champion is with Consumer Reports. He's been a critic of many car infotainment systems, especially ones using flat-panel screens.

CHAMPION: If you're working an iPad or an iPhone, you're actually looking down and your eyes are following where you're hands are going. And that's your primary focus. So, if you're putting a touch screen into a car, therefore your primary focus when operating that touch screen, your eyes have to be on the screen. And that's what makes it distracting.

GLINTON: Champion says that's why your car has knobs and buttons you can feel without seeing.

Jeremy Anwyl is with Edmunds.com.

JEREMY ANWYL: The driving experience is so fundamentally different than, say, the desktop experience. And getting a bunch of guys in a room that used to, you know, write programs for Microsoft or whoever is probably not the right way to be thinking about this human-machine interface.

GLINTON: Anwyl says companies like GM and Honda aren't Apple or Microsoft, certainly not yet.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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