Car companies have been working hard to reduce driver distraction for years. And now, with the explosion of iPhones, music players, and sophisticated in-car electronics, there’s even more concern. So we asked our FYI Reporter Yolanda Vazquez to update us on what automotive engineers have planned to help reduce driver distraction and save lives.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: Various hands-free, voice-activated technologies have helped reduce driver distractions, but car makers are constantly looking for new ways to minimize driver inattentiveness.

LOUIS TIJERINA: We believe that the data are very, very clear that looking to the road scene is a very important part of staying safe.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: Louis Tijerina should know. He’s a Sr. Technical Specialist with Ford Motor Company’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan.

LOUIS TIJERINA: Things that take the driver’s eyes away from the road scene are what increase the risk of a crash or near crash involvement. Some of it’s technology, but some of it’s not.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: Tijerina and his colleague Mike Blommer have spent years studying drivers and what most distracts them. They invited me to visit Ford’s Research Lab which houses the Virttex driving simulator. It stands for virtual test track experiment and is arguably one of the most advanced driving simulators in the country.

MIKE BLOMMER: A lot of the effort is looking at driver distraction related issues, active safety technologies and putting people in dangerous situations.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: For example they may intentionally shift the driver’s focus off the road or nudge them out of a lane. Multiple in-car cameras monitor the road scene-- and since it’s a virtual world—Blommer knows the driver’s every move.

MIKE BLOMMER: We know exactly where they are on the road, we know what their steering wheel angle is, we know how they’re pushing on the gas pedal or brake pedal.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: By looking at the surveillance video and analyzing numerical data, Blommer can determine what caused the driver to look away and how they can re-engage them back into the driving environment.

MIKE BLOMMER: The questions we look at-should a warning or alerting device be something like a sound, should it be a vibration or what we call a haptic cue.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: This type of research was instrumental in creating Ford’s Collision Warning with brake support in 2009. The company also introduced a new lane keeping system that prevents drivers from wandering out of their lane. The domestic auto maker is clearly committed to reducing the number of distracted drivers on the road-- but they’re not the only manufacturer in the game.

TOM BALOGA: BMW has been introducing a lot of high technology into safety over a number of years; electronics has come a long way.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: At the most recent Enhanced Safety of Vehicles Conference in Washington DC, BMW conducted demonstrations of their prototype Automatic Collision Avoidance System. BMW Vice-President of Vehicle Safety, Klaus Kompass sets up the scenario. As he drives towards the “fake static car,” an audible warning signal alerts him.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: When Kompass doesn’t hit the brakes, the car does it for him.

KLAUS KOMPASS: I didn’t do anything. It gave us a warning and then it reacted because I didn’t react at all; the car autonomously applied the brakes.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: This mounted camera is a key component. It detects items in the road, whether it’s another car or a moving pedestrian. The front seat belts also tighten up in case the collision is unavoidable.

KLAUS KOMPASS: This is very intuitive - if the belt pulls, you look outside, you say, ‘wow, what’s going on.’

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: Absolutely, it dead on stopped me, it dead on stopped me to take a look.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: The goal for BMW and all car makers is to protect vehicle occupants by making up for any lapse in driver performance.

TOM BALOGA: And when a driver is not able to react because of the laws of physics, then we have a system that will intercede on behalf of the driver.

YOLANDA VAZQUEZ: Avoiding accidents through advanced safety technologies is of critical importance to all car manufacturers as they collectively work to reduce risky driving behavior and save lives.