DETROIT – Whatever the future holds for personal mobility it must be something familiar, otherwise it will bring about more unsafe behavior behind the wheel, panelists at the 2014 SAE Convergence conference say.

“If the in-vehicle display is not comparable to the experience you have on your Apple (iPhone) 6 Plus or your Samsung Galaxy S5, (drivers are) not going to want to use a safer interface, they’re going to want to go back to the handheld, which is where the danger is,” former NHTSA chief David Strickland, now a partner in Washington-based regulatory law firm Venable, tells the crowd here Tuesday during a panel discussion.

Marios Zenios, vice president-Chrysler Uconnect Systems and Services, concurs with Strickland. He says the auto industry won’t be able to stop consumers’ love affair with technology, it can only figure out how to integrate it into the vehicle while preserving safety at the same time.

“What we have found is 99% of the people like what technology has to offer,” Zenios says.

But, as learning new technology comes to some buyers more naturally than others, automakers need to find ways to mimic the easy-to-use interface found in personal communication devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

A typical smartphone operating system is “designed for customers less than one year of age all the way to more than 90 years of age. We have to make systems so they are easy to learn and easy to use,” he says.

Strickland uses texting while driving as an example of how automakers’ current human-machine interfaces have not been able to curb the risky behavior.

Some automakers, for instance, allow drivers who have paired their phone to their car’s head unit to only be able to respond to texts with pre-written messages.

But the feature hasn’t brought about a reduction in texting while driving, at least according to recent surveys.

A 2014 study commissioned by the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning found 16% of people surveyed admitted to texting or emailing while driving, up from 8.2% in 2012.

A 2013 Centers for Disease Control study found 41.4% of the 64.7% of teens who drove 30 days prior to the survey admitted to texting while driving.

As he did during his time at NHTSA, Strickland continues to promote the ability to make a driver’s cellphone inoperable as maybe the only way to stop him from texting while driving.

“(We need to) find a way to identify a driver’s phone from a passenger’s phone, and unless the driver’s phone is docked to a car, it’s interlocked,” Strickland says.

Another topic covered during the panel’s wide-ranging discussion includes the industry’s readiness for automated driving.

Christian Gerdes, associate professor-mechanical engineering at Stanford University and one of the world’s foremost experts on automated driving, just returned from an Audi event in Germany that saw a driverless RS7 reach speeds near 150 mph (241 km/h) on the Hockenheimring race track.

Operating autonomous vehicles in this type of controlled environment is easy, Gerdes says. The challenge will be integrating them into society.

“We have rules of the road, but we don’t tend as humans to follow them,” he says. “We have speed limits, but we don’t really obey them. Traffic is really not technological, it’s social. I think one of the big challenges of a truly driverless vehicle is (that) it has to understand how to interact with humans when we don’t actually follow the rules.”

Strickland says getting autonomous vehicles to zero failure rates is the only way forward, despite the public generally accepting the fact 90% of car crashes are caused by human error.

“Even if you have a 2% failure rate in (autonomous vehicles), that would be unacceptable to anyone,” Strickland says.

Ford’s James Buczkowski, director-electrical and electronics systems, fears automated systems already in place in vehicles and still to come may reduce the competency of the driver. He notes some have alleged automated parallel-parking systems such as Ford’s make drivers forget how to parallel-park the old-fashioned way.

Strickland agrees this is a potential danger, and points out that most of today’s teenagers don’t know what “N” means on the plate around their vehicle’s shifter, as few have ever operated a car with a manual transmission.

Data personalization also is a hot topic with the panel, with Buczkowski and Zenios noting drivers of the future likely will want to weed out data that doesn’t affect them.

“The next generation of (in-car user) experience must be much more personalized, (only bringing data that is) relevant to me,” Buczkowski says.

But Zenios warns efforts by automakers and suppliers to personalize vehicles with data needs to be driver-controllable.

“The technology knows you, but it has to be your choice (for it to do so),” he says. “If we lose that, customers will not accept connectivity in vehicles, and it will send us back to the Stone Age.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com