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How portable-device makers are fighting driving distractions

The latest federal guidelines against distracted driving don't apply just to automakers -- they're aimed at the makers of portable devices. Garmin and QNX tell us what they're doing to comply.

By Douglas Newcomb Apr 29, 2013 11:27AM

Chevy Spark Siri Eyes Free. Photo by GM.As more car buyers demand connectivity, automakers can't keep up with the latest consumer electronics.

Neither can the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which last week issued a new set of distraction guidelines. But for the first time, the federal agency is targeting the makers of portable devices -- the very devices that tempt drivers from using a car's onboard features.

The NHTSA guidelines were the first of three phases of voluntary recommendations from the agency. In addition to focusing on in-dash electronics, NHTSA plans to release two more studies over the next two years to address mobile phones and other portable devices used in vehicles.

“Until such time as the Phase 2 Guidelines are issued, the agency recommends that developers and manufacturers of portable and aftermarket devices consider these principles as they design and update their products,” the Phase 1 Guidelines state. “NHTSA further encourages these developers and manufacturers to adopt any recommendations in the Phase 1 Guidelines that they believe are feasible and appropriate for their devices.”

How can developers and suppliers of portable devices accommodate NHTSA guidelines? I spoke with two companies that straddle the line between cars and handheld tech and found that they’re already working on ways to keep a driver's attention on the dashboard instead of on a handheld device. 

Garmin is a big supplier of portable navigation systems and in-car maps and software for automakers such as Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz. "Our team has submitted comments to NHTSA multiple times,” Garmin spokesman Johan-Til Broer told MSN Autos. He added that the company will be taking the recently issued NHTSA guidelines into consideration when developing new products.

"And we have already made significant efforts to limit driver distraction by, for example, limiting the time users have to look at the navigation screen to find their way," Broer said.

QNX is a major supplier of automotive infotainment software. The company was acquired by BlackBerry maker RIM in 2010, and this puts it in a unique position to create in-dash interfaces with an eye toward how portable devices are developed, said Derek Kuhn, QNX vice president of sales and marketing.

“We are very involved with the BlackBerry product-management team,” he said.

Kuhn said that even before connectivity became prevalent in new cars, BlackBerry helped develop a telecommunications industry focus group to study distracted driving and establish safety standards. "It didn’t get the attention we wanted it to,” he said, "but that was three years ago. Today we’re taking even further steps in our automotive groups across BlackBerry and QNX.”

The two branches of RIM are involved with standards organizations such as SAE, ISO and others “that are trying to figure out what the right path is,” Kuhn said. “And these are all groups from which NHTSA pulls data.”

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has justifiably made distracted driving a priority, but has also pointed a finger at automakers such as Ford and its Sync system. With its latest guidelines, NHTSA has signaled that it's taking a more holistic approach. The agency is recognizing that it's critical that all companies -- automakers, their suppliers and portable-device makers -- work together to develop practical distracted-driving guidelines.

While no one yet knows what the right path is to ensure that drivers don’t become distracted while staying connected, one thing is certain: There’s no going back. “What I clearly see is that car buyers are demanding more of the consumer electronics/mobile experience in the car,” Kuhn said.

And if drivers can't get that on the dashboard easily, no doubt they'll turn to their own devices.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

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