To Limit Driver Distraction, Will the Government Curtail Car Information Systems?
Thanks to increasingly sophisticated telematics systems, today’s drivers have more information at their fingertips than ever before. But as a result, they may also be more distracted behind the wheel than ever before. The tension between combating driver distraction and turning the automobile into “the ultimate mobile device” filled the Telematics Update Detroit 2011 conference held in Novi, Mich., last week. David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), took serious issue with the newly data-intensive interiors of modern cars in a direct and sobering speech to industry insiders. And his words left a lingering question about how much the government might step in to limit in-car tech that could distract drivers.
“I will tell you right now, a car is not a mobile device,” Strickland said Thursday. “A car is a car.”
According to Strickland, distracted and inattentive driving is responsible for about 5,500 deaths per year, and roughly 995 of those fatalities are attributed to handheld cellphone use. Strickland made sure to commend those companies that have made avoiding driver distraction a top priority, and praised the benefits of telematics systems such as automated crash notification systems and GPS navigation. But with a wide range of wireless service providers, software companies and hardware manufacturers vying to get a slice of an ever-growing pie, Strickland and other government regulators are worried driver safety might fall by the wayside. So, he made it clear that the rush to mimic and incorporate the mobile phone industry by inundating the consumer with applications and interactive options has the NHTSA on high alert. “We will not take a back seat while new telematics and infotainment systems are introduced,” he said. “There is too much potential for more distraction for the driver.”
In addition to putting automobile manufacturers, mobile device companies and other service providers “on notice,” Strickland also announced a plan to develop a framework of guidelines for battling distracted driving. “Our initial focus is developing the visual–manual interfaces for the in-vehicle technologies, and we aim to publish those guidelines for comment this fall,” Strickland said. “From there we will tackle guidelines for portable/nomadic devices [GPS units, mobile phones, tablets, etc.] by 2013, and then guidelines for voice interfaces by 2014.”
NHTSA is planning even bolder steps than reigning in car information systems to combat driver distraction. At the Detroit telematics conference, Strickland also touted the vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology that his agency is currently researching. With the NHTSA in the second year of a four-year vehicle-to-vehicle test program in conjunction with the many top automobile manufacturers, he said that the technology is proving its value. “The safety applications of V2V fully implemented can actually reduce 80 percent of crashes with nonimpaired drivers,” Strickland said. “So there is tremendous promise.”
V2V, though, is one of those technologies that always seems to be five years away. But when audience members pressed Strickland on whether the government could stick to a strict deadline for implementing such a system and mandating it in new cars, he stood steadfast. “There’s going to be no more five-year horizons,” he said. “There’s been too much industry investment, there’s been too much patience and waiting.” Strickland said the agency will make an official decision in 2013, and if the decision is to move forward with guideline development—which would include tech requirements to ensure interbrand communication—then 2015 was a plausible timeline for implementation. “I have every indication from my staff that it most likely will, from where I’m sitting right now,” he said. “But we have to wait to see what the final information is.”
Strickland made it clear that the NHTSA would work closely with auto manufacturers during what will be a massive transition for the industry. Though the potential timeline for V2V didn’t completely shock the room of industry insiders, it wouldn’t leave car manufacturers a lot of time to implement the possible new guidelines. Siani Kiyonaga is a business development manager for Toyota, one of the automotive manufacturers working with the NHTSA on its V2V research. “I think we would need more specific details in exactly what he’s referring to and what the exact elements he’d be looking for, but by all means, we would try meet any sort of regulations and exceed them as much as possible,” Kiyonaga says.
V2V systems would probably include features like forward-collision warnings and lane-assist notifications to tell motorists if somebody’s in their blind spot. Still, no matter how many regulations or new warning systems are created, there will always be one variable beyond control: the driver. Strickland’s cautionary words were directed toward convention attendees, but he made sure he didn’t let consumers off the hook when it came to personal responsibility and distraction. “Drivers and other road users must take an active role in safety,” he said, “their own and for those [with whom] they share the road.”