Outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released voluntary guidelines to discourage automakers from installing electronic devices that could create distractions for drivers.
The proliferation of state-of-the-art communications, infotainment and navigation systems available in new cars and trucks can make a motorist mentally fuzz over if trying to operate the vehicle without first getting familiar with the on-board electronics.
Features like Bluetooth pairing, which links a smartphone or any idevice to the car, are not difficult to use, but pairing -- which takes several steps -- is best done while the vehicle is parked in the driveway. Once paired you can download an address book and make calls by voice recognition or listen to the music library.
Of particular concern to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are devices that allow drivers to enter text and message, or browse the Web. The guidelines recommend automakers not include in-car devices that display web pages, content or text messages that take a motorist's hands off the wheel and eyes off the road.
Smartphones already do that and 39 states now outlaw texting while behind the wheel.
The guidelines recommend disabling specific operations unless the vehicle is stopped and in park such as: manual text entry for the purposes or text messaging and Internet browsing, video-based entertainment and communications like video phoning or video conferencing and display of certain types of text, including text messages, Web pages and social media content.
"Distracted driving is a deadly epidemic that has devastating consequences on our nation's roadways," said LaHood. "These guidelines recognize that today's drivers appreciate technology, while providing automakers with a way to balance the innovation consumers want with the safety we all need. Combined with good laws, good enforcement, these guidelines can save lives."
A NHTSA study, "The Impact of Handheld and Hands-Free Cellphone Use on Driving Performance and Safety Critical Event Risk," showed hand-eye tasks associated with making a phone call, such as reaching for a phone, looking up a contact, and dialing the number increased the risk of a crash three-fold.
Text messaging, browsing and dialing doubled the risk of an accident. The agency said 10 percent of all traffic deaths in 2011 -- 3,331 -- were in crashes involving distracted drivers but the number of injured fell to 387,000 from 416,000 in 2010.
"The new study strongly suggests that visual-manual tasks can degrade a driver's focus to increase the risk of getting into a crash up to three times," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said. "The new guidelines and our ongoing work with our state partners across the country will help us put an end to the dangerous practice of distracted driving by limiting the amount of time drivers take their eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and their attention away from the task of driving."
Concerns about driver distraction will lessen when self-driving cars take to the nation's roadways in numbers.
But the Society of Automotive Engineers, which met in Detroit this month, says autonomous driving technologies won't be common until 2025.
"2025 is the time frame where we see cars driving themselves," Christian Schmaucher, head of Continental Automotive's Advanced Driver Assistance Systems for the NAFTA region, told a panel.
Google has made great progress with its self-driving Toyota Prius and Nissan is testing a prototype all-electric Leaf capable of safely changing lanes and applying the brakes to avoid a potential accident, The Detroit News reported.
While most vehicular accidents are a result of human error, distraction or intoxication, it will take years for self-driving cars to prove themselves.
"If one accident happens as a result of automation then we're having a totally new discussion," Schumacher said.
Higher mileage = higher car prices
Retired General Motors "car guy" Bob Lutz says government fuel economy standards that will require fleet mileage of 54.4 mpg by 2025 are going to hit consumers in the pocketbook.
Lutz, GM's former vice chairman, said the new rules will add $5,000 to the price of a new vehicle -- $3,764 more than the government estimated when it finalized the new fuel economy rules last year.
"If the government says $1,800, it'll probably be about double that by the time the cars hit the road," Lutz said in a keynote speech at SAE World Congress in Detroit.
The Obama administration estimated the average additional costs to meet the 2025 fuel standards at $1,726 for cars and $2,059 for trucks, The Detroit News said.
"In order to maintain ... styling, performance, appeal and not turn into rolling suppository-shape aerodynamic appliances, the car companies will have to do a lot of lightweight materials," said the 81-year-old Lutz, who previously worked for Ford, BMW and Chrysler.
He suggested a decade-long gradual hike in the national gas tax to help in the transition to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, saying national policy is attacking the wrong end of the pump.
"Common sense dictates that if you want someone to use less of a given commodity, you raise the price of that commodity," he said.
"As I've said for years, reducing fuel consumption by forcing automakers to sell smaller and more frugal vehicles is like fighting the nation's obesity epidemic by forcing clothing manufacturers to sell only in small sizes," Lutz said.
Lutz, who drives a gas-electric Chevrolet Volt hybrid, predicts electric vehicles won't take off until the battery pack is about the size of a conventional fuel tank, the vehicle range increases to 400 miles on a single charge, the recharge time shrinks to an hour, and the cost falls to that of a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle.
"You don't want to punish people for driving," he said. "You want to give them incentive to buy more efficient vehicles."
What could be more American than a Ford built in Flat Rock, Mich.
I had a 1994, V-6 Ford Probe GT built at the then state-of-the-art AutoAlliance International assembly plant alongside the Mazda6. It was a fine sporty coupe, still ran after 14 years although there were issues early on with a faulty brake caliper.
Now separated from Mazda, Ford recently marked the production of 1 million Mustangs at Flat Rock and announced shutdowns for a week in early May and a month beginning in late June to tool up to build the popular midsize Fusion sedan.
Ford added 260,000-square feet to the plant, including a new body shop and paint process, as part of the automaker's $555 million upgrade.
Production of the Fusion is expected to begin in August and 2014 Fusions from Flat Rock could begin arriving at dealerships by late fall. Ford will add a second shift of about 1,400 workers at Flat Rock.
The current 2013 Fusion is assembled in Hermosillo, Mexico.