Monday, November 28, 2016

Driving While Online: Does the NHTSA Know Best?

Many generations of technology ago—that is to say, in the 1950s—there was a popular TV show called "Father Knows Best," starring Robert Young as the father of four children whose escapades and misfortunes always wound up with the kids having a talk with Daddy.  When this happened, you knew the final commercial break was coming up and everything would be tied up neatly in a few more minutes. 

Real family life in the 1950s wasn't as easy to fix as "Father Knows Best" portrayed, and neither is the problem of drivers getting distracted by portable devices such as mobile phones, tablets, and so on.  Some observers are attributing the recent rise in per-mile auto fatalities in the U. S. mainly to electronic distractions, and the U. S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has a Department of Transportation (DOT) that has recently issued a draft set of "guidelines" for makers of electronic devices and automotive manufacturers to follow in order to address this problem.

Everybody admits there's a real problem.  If you've driven more than a few hours in rush-hour traffic in any major city, you've probably seen people doing things at the wheel that you can't believe they're doing, like texting or studying something on the car seat, even watching videos.  The question is what to do about it.

Lots of municipalities have tried to attack the problem by passing a no-hand-held-device-use ordinance for drivers, but enforcing such a thing is not something that highway patrol officers get real excited about, and the consensus is that these ordinances have not made a big dent in the problem.

So on Nov. 23, the NHTSA announced a draft of guidelines for makers of portable devices:  mobile phones, tablets, GPS display systems, you name it.  Two of the new concepts that these guidelines, if followed, would introduce to the driving public are "pairing" and "Driver Mode."

Pairing refers to an electronic connection between the portable device and the vehicle's built-in displays and controls.  Historically, the automakers have taken the NHTSA's word seriously regarding its recommendations for how to incorporate safety features in cars.  Although guidelines do not have the force of law, they can become law if Congress so chooses, and so many safety features such as seat belts and air bags showed up in cars as options before they were made mandatory.  In an earlier set of guidelines, the NHTSA set up rules for built-in instrumentation that would meet the agency's non-distraction requirements.  This involves things like not requiring the driver to glance away from the road for more than two seconds at a time and so on.  Their reference maximum distraction is tuning a radio manually.  Anything that distracts you more than that is basically regarded as too much.

Assuming the car's built-in controls and displays meet that criterion, pairing basically ports the portable device's controls to the car's built-in controls, which automatically meet the distraction guidelines already.  Maybe this sounds easy to a regulatory agency, but to this engineer, it sounds like a compatibility nightmare.  For pairing to work most of the time, every portable device that anyone is likely to use in a car will have to be able to communicate seamlessly with the wide variety of in-car systems, and be able to use those systems as a remote command and control point instead of the device's own controls and displays.  Maybe it can be made to work, but at this time it looks like a long shot.  And even if it does, you have the problem of those die-hards (such as yours truly) who cling to cars that are ten or fifteen years old and will never catch up to the latest technology.  (Those folks tend not to buy the latest portable devices either, but there are exceptions.)

Recognizing that pairing won't solve all the problems, the next step is Driver Mode.  This is an operational mode that goes into effect when the device figures out it's in a moving car.  Most new portable gizmos these days have built-in GPS systems, and so they can detect vehicle motion without much of a problem, although there might be issues with things like rides on a ferry boat and so on.  But those situations are rare enough to be negligible.  Once in Driver Mode, the device will refuse to let the user do things like texting, watching videos, and other activities that distract more than the reference tuning-the-radio operation would. 

One can foresee problems with Driver Mode as well.  The NHTSA says the user should be able to switch it off, and if this option is available, my guess is a lot of people will choose to disable Driver Mode altogether.  A determined distracted driver is going to find a way to text while driving no matter what, but the hope is that with these new measures in place—pairing and Driver Mode, mainly—the number of incidents of distracted driving will decrease, and we will resume our march to fewer traffic accidents that has been going on historically for the last several decades.

While the NHTSA deserves credit for encouraging device makers and car manufacturers to consider these ideas, it is not clear that there is a lot of enthusiasm for them, especially on the part of the mobile phone makers.  Automakers selling big-ticket cars can more easily adapt their products to the different requirements of different legal regimes in the U. S. and, say, France.  But piling a bunch of complicated pairing features onto phones sold only in the U. S. may not be an easy thing to convince phone makers to do.  Unless the U. S. initiative proves so popular that it becomes a global phenomenon, my guess is that mobile phone makers will resist building in the pairing function, especially because they would have to deal with a bewildering variety of host controls and displays in cars that would be hard to keep up with.

This issue is just one aspect of the huge upheaval in the auto industry that IT is causing right now.  Integrating cars with the Internet and portable devices, and making sure in-car displays work without causing wrecks, are only two of the many challenges that car makers face in this area.  Ironically, the move toward driverless cars, if successful, would render all the driver-distraction precautions pointless anyway.  If the driver's not doing anything, it's fine to let him or her be distracted.  That's Google's hope, anyway, in developing driverless cars:  less time paying attention to driving means more time on the Internet. 

The hope is that all the confusion will eventually settle down, or at least we will make the transitions to highly IT-intensive cars that are still at least as safe to drive as the older ones, if not safer—until we don't have to drive them at all.  But it looks like right now, at least, car makers will have to aim simultaneously at two targets that are moving in opposite directions. 

Sources:  An article summarizing the NHTSA proposed guidelines appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News on Nov. 23, 2016 at  The NHTSA press release about the guidelines can be found at, and the press release has a link to a .pdf file of the draft guidelines.

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