Among additions to the features in and around the dashboard-to-be (or already there) are multi-app smartphones with Facebook and Twitter, email, mapping, TV traffic updates, hotel reservations, shopping, and, certainly (though nobody's bringing it up), porn. With the arrival of all this new stuff in the cockpit, the question that kept popping up -- and kept slipping through panelists' fingers like an overheated radiator cap -- was driver distraction.
"There has to be a better, more relevant way," said Thomas Gebhardt, president and COO of Panasonic automotive systems, "so that you're not in search mode while you're trying to keep your eyes on the road."
Everyone agreed that dials and buttons, to control all the new automotive electronics, lend to greater distraction. No one was sure whether touchpads, or even gesture recognition, would make things much better. And everyone agreed that "eye-tracking" technology is still science fiction.
Voice recognition is a well advanced technology that could reduce driver distraction, noted Panasonic's Gebhardt, except that it doesn't work consistently in cars, because so many drivers don't like it and tend to turn it off, after which they resort to good old buttons and dials.
In the end, generalities seemed to dominate the issue of distracted driving, the key safety issue for the new wave of automotive electronics. Kia's Beizh, for example, said, "We have to find a very flat and very intuitive interface in our vehicles."
Visteon's Yerdon added to this insight by saying, "Today, we need to understand the user experience, and mold precision plastic so that it looks like a phone or a small tablet."
Further concerns about driver distraction came from the audience, including one questioner who wondered whether drivers will be less skilled when the car is doing most of the driving. Although trying not to be flippant about this concern, Beizh ended up sounding that way: "You are going to have degradation. So what?"
Gebhardt sounded one of the session's many cautionary notes by wondering if too much is really never enough. More and more cockpit features can't help but add complications, distractions, and expense to the design of a car, especially with software updates that can either improve a feature or add even more features on the run, he suggested.
Eventually, said Gebhardt, uttering a word rarely heard at CES, automakers and technologists must consider taking something out. He said, "When you talk about an add-on, you have to ask, what is the subtraction... We don't think you can continue to stack features into a vehicle forever."
Talk about fogging up the windshield!