Siri's "Eyes Free" navigation: BMW, Toyota, Audi and more drive into the future

COMMERCIAL FEATURE: Apple announces that BMW, GM, Mercedes, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Toyota and Honda will introduce a button on the steering wheel to launch the Siri "Eyes Free" digital assistant.

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Apple has revealed that its digital assistant Siri will soon take her place in the driver’s seat. The company announced the development during this week’s keynote speech at the World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) along with a raft of other new products including the iOS 6 operating system, Siri for iPad and an Apple maps service.

The motoring world jumped on the news that BMW, GM, Mercedes, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Toyota and Honda have signed up to add a button to the steering wheel which will launch the Siri application via Bluetooth.

This "eyes-free" system is a further step in the development of hands-free car technology, from voice-activated GPS systems to Bluetooth calls. Siri’s ease of use will be a relief for users tired of having to manually set a GPS, and experts hope that it will keep users’ hands, eyes and minds on the road; it also integrates Apple products ever deeper into users’ daily lives.

The California-based tech giant has also announced it will launch its own map system to replace Google Maps on Apple products, and these developments opens the possibility of integration with local applications such as Yelp.

However, some road safety experts fear that introducing apps to the driving experience opens up many more possibilities for distraction – it’s not yet clear what will be accessible via Siri’s “Eyes Free” system, be it just navigation and local data or access to text messages, email and more. While car manufacturers have lined up to work with Apple on the project, it is not known what terms are involved and whether automakers will be able to place safety limits on the service.

Distracted driving is a controversial subject that causes road accidents and deaths every year, and opinions are divided on whether to banish technology from the driving experience or to accept its presence and pursue a seamless integration that offers fewer distractions.

In the US, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has issued a “Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving”. He says: "Personal responsibility for putting down that cell phone is a good first step – but we need everyone to do their part, whether it's helping pass strong laws, educating our youngest and most vulnerable drivers, or starting their own campaign to end distracted driving."

Android users will be unable to use the Siri system, but similar voice-activated smartphone integration systems are currently in development. For Apple fans who aren’t planning on buying a new BMW, there is a wide range of BMW and other accessories which enable the use of smartphone maps, GPS systems and phone calls in used cars.

Shares of car navigation systems companies Harmin, TeleNav and Garmin dropped with the announcement, while TomTom is set to ride out the development with a maps licensing deal with Apple.

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