How Car Companies Are Combatting Texting While Driving

Texting behind the wheel can be deadly, but experts think people probably won't stop doing it on their own. So car companies are stepping up to help.

Distracted driving continues to be a major problem on the roads. Smartphones ping and buzz, drawing drivers’ attention away from what’s in front of them. A recent reminder of this came last week, when police in Tennessee said that the driver in a December school bus crash had been texting at the wheel. Three people were killed in that incident, including two elementary school students.

With demand surging for technology in vehicles, automakers recognize the need to deliver features that allow drivers to more safely interact with incoming calls and texts -- without touching or looking at their phones.

Ford’s SYNC operating system, for example, sends texts dictated by the driver and reads incoming texts aloud; its MyKey feature allows parents to block calls and texts when teens are driving. GM is reportedly developing eye-tracking technology that can detect when drivers glance away at a text. Earlier this year, BMW unveiled plans for gesture controls that will allow drivers to point at the vehicle's navigation screen to take a call.

Recognizing the unlikelihood that drivers will break the habit of looking down at their phones anytime soon, carmakers are increasingly fitting vehicles with technologies that lie within drivers' field of vision and don't take their focus off the road.

“People will do this no matter what -- whether it’s text messaging, using their phones for navigation or pulling up Facebook," said Doug Gilman, an auto industry analyst at the consulting firm Frost and Sullivan. “Car companies are going to be the leaders by bringing in new technology to vehicles and making connected cars.”

These anti-distraction technologies come in response to growing statistics that confirm distracted driving is a major cause of injuries and fatalities -- and that young people are particularly susceptible to these interruptions. Risks for car crashes quadruple when the driver is using a phone, and phone use is the second leading cause for teen crashes.

“It’s getting harder for younger drivers to ignore their mobile devices while they’re driving,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at the automotive research firm Kelley Blue Book.

Because companies want more millennials to buy vehicles, connected features like touch screens, apps and Bluetooth that these consumers often seek are becoming the norm in most lower-end cars. These features also help reduce the cognitive load on drivers, thereby mitigating risk for distraction.

“Car companies are making every attempt to provide drivers with as seamless an experience as possible,” Gilman said. “That means simplifying the screen display, accepting calls and having calendar notifications.” 

Unsurprisingly, tech giants have also joined the fray as these features become more advanced. Android Auto software, available in Hyundai’s Sonata models, replicates the smartphone interface on the dashboard screen and eliminates the need to check the apps on your phone. Apple Car Play functions similarly for iPhones, though it's mostly found in higher-end cars from Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz.

Still, the appearance of smartphone features on a dashboard could raise questions about whether they'll add to driver distraction. If statistics show them to be safe, though, these new tech features will become standard within a few years, according to experts.

“It won’t be that expensive once they get on mass production,” Brauer said. “Once data shows they really increase safety for drivers and passengers, it’ll be assumed that you should have that in the car.”