Apple’s Siri moves to your steering wheel to stave off distracted driving crusaders

Among its rollout of new laptops and software upgrades, Apple today took its biggest step yet into the automotive industry, announcing that several automakers had agreed to integrate its Siri voice controls for the iPhone into vehicles, allowing drivers "Eyes Free" Siri operation by pressing the button for the vehicle's own voice control system. It's as much about facing off with Microsoft and Sony as it is staying ahead of the debate over distracted driving.

Apple executives said eight automakers -- General Motors, Toyota, Chrysler, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW and Jaguar/Land Rover -- had agreed to integrate Siri into their entertainment systems, with one expected to have Siri easily plug into the system within 12 months. (Apple used a BMW for its demonstration photo, but we know Steve Jobs was a fan of Mercedes.) All the companies already have voice control systems available; Siri is expected to simply work in addition to them, rather than replace technology such as OnStar.

Combined with other upgrades to Siri's capabilities -- including offering turn-by-turn directions and reading text messages -- Apple's plans would make the iPhone and Siri a direct competitor to built-in systems such as Ford's MyFordTouch, developed by Microsoft and Sony. MyFordTouch offers similar voice commands, but has been roundly criticized by Ford customers as hard to use, and Ford has been forced to add back buttons it removed from dashboards on the assumption the MyFordTouch touchscreen would handle all major fiddling.

Yet MyFordTouch and other systems are at best a minor investment for any tech company. Apple's real goal may be preventing the iPhone from becoming the 21st-century equivalent of an open beer can.

In the past, automakers have struggled to even get phone calls answered to Apple, which wasn't interested in changing the iPhone for a few thousand cars or trucks. But the distracted driving debate has reached a point where some safety officials want to ban all phone use by drivers when a vehicle's in motion, "Eyes Free" or no. Apple noted that the key part of the "Eyes Free" plan was making sure the phone didn't light up when drivers asked Siri a question.

Proving that it can make Siri a helpful guest to drivers rather than a danger would give Apple some defense in the distracted driving battle, even though safety researchers remain uncertain what role distractions play in crashes. Even with Siri, it's worth asking whether anyone should use Twitter or Facebook while behind the wheel -- but if the voice system staves off tougher laws, Siri may prove far more useful than simply telling a starlet it's raining outside.

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