Wednesday, July 18, 2012

For safety’s sake, why don’t cars just disable phones?

With all the focus on driver distraction, this is a question that I get asked occasionally. It’s a simple question, with a less than simple answer.

Using technology to control inappropriate phone use has been a topic at some of the driver distraction meetings I've attended. One proposed solution involves a technique called micro location — using ultrasonic waves to identify where in the cabin the phone is located. There are other ways to triangulate the phone's position, but they all require coordination between the phone and car. Knowing where the phone resides in the car is a requirement, as most passengers wouldn’t be happy to have their phone automatically disabled, just because they’re in the car. And the solution can’t be based only on the GPS speed of the phone, or you’d have lots of irate bus, taxi, train, or subway riders.

The fact is, unless all phone makers and car makers agree on the same standard, there's no incentive for either side to build half of a feature. You’d need to deploy potentially expensive technology that wouldn’t work unless you pair exactly the right phone with the right car. This likely won't happen unless companies are legislated to do so.

Given the speed of automotive development, it’s impossible for the car guys to build a technology that the phone guys won't leave in the dust, unless some guarantees are put in place. The adoption of Bluetooth is a good example. It took years before Bluetooth became widespread in phones, but its adoption had more to do with Bluetooth earpieces, not connections to cars. Car makers took a long time to roll out Bluetooth support as a standard feature because too many phones either didn't have it or had an implementation that wasn't fully compatible. Eventually, the two markets synchronized, but it took several years.

One argument against a technology-mandated disable is that not all jurisdictions agree on what is, or isn’t, allowable. In the US, 45 out of 50 states have some form of prohibition against using phones in cars. But what is disallowed varies widely by state — some don't allow any use of the phone (even hands-free), some prohibit teenagers but no other age groups, some disallow texting but not hands-free, some disallow use for commercial vehicles but not private vehicles, and some allow everything.

Another argument against a technological solution is that people can be educated to assume responsibility for their behavior. For example, why don't all cars have a blood alcohol level blow-tester hooked up to the ignition? Technically it's possible, but it's very expensive to do it from the car maker's standpoint. One could argue that it is worth it to have cars protect us from ourselves. But as a society, we've decided that, in the case of drunk driving, we are willing to give people back the responsibility. Rather than control the problem with technology, we socialize and educate people that driving intoxicated is an undesirable behavior.

We could, of course, decide to do the same with mobile technology, by educating personally instead of solving technically. This approach may make more sense than a technology-based prohibition: technology always moves at light speed compared to legislative mechanisms of control.

1 comment:

  1. On question 1 I do not have an answer, the urge to communicate "always on" is bigger than any safety related thinking.
    Regarding the last question "why don't all cars have a blood alcohol level blow-tester?" - these are mandatory in France now. Now, as in "today" - you dont have one, you pay a fine when controlled!