Monday, September 15, 2014

A Tech Fix for Texting While Driving

By now, almost everybody with a cellphone and a car knows that it's a bad idea to text while you're driving.  But people still do it, and some of those people die in text-related car crashes and take innocent victims with them.  What if technology existed that simply prevented people from texting from a moving car at all?  Wouldn't that solve the problem?

Scott Tibbetts thought so.  Tibbets and his company Katasi were profiled in a recent New York Times article for developing a promising technology that would simply block texting from any phone that was in a moving car.  While there are several technological solutions to this problem that are already on the market, they all have various problems. 

Some text-blocking apps work by using the phone's GPS to figure out if the phone is moving faster than walking speed.  If it is, the software concludes that you're driving, and blocks texts.  This one turns out to be a battery hog, because the GPS system has to run all the time.  It also might present problems for train and bus passengers.  Another system uses the car's speed sensor and links it to the phone with a Bluetooth wireless connection.  But it costs over a hundred bucks, and there aren't that many people who are both concerned enough about texting while driving to buy it, and also willing to shell out that much money for something they could do for free with a little more willpower, perhaps. 

Mr. Tibbetts' solution is cleverer than these.  It involves connecting a wireless box to the car's OBD-II port—the on-board diagnostics socket that the auto technicians use to figure out what the "service engine" light means.  When the car's moving fast enough to be dangerous, the wireless box sends that information to the cellphone network, which then asks the phone—once—where it is.  Then, if the network is using the software developed by Mr. Tibbetts' firm Katasi, the software uses the location data to figure out things like who is driving the car.  You don't want a whole family's text service blocked just because Mom is driving to the grocery store, for instance.  That way, the GPS battery-drain problem is minimized, and the computational heavy lifting is done in the cloud, so to speak, rather than by the phone.

Mr. Tibbetts, an aerospace engineer and entrepreneur, has persuaded both an insurance company and a cellphone provider (Sprint) to cooperate in test trials, which have worked fine.  But it appears that the largest player, Sprint, has gotten cold feet lately, and has stalled further tests.  In the Times interview, Wayne Ward, vice-president for business and product development at Sprint, expressed concerns about product liability.  Currently, if a driver texts while driving and gets in a wreck, it's the driver's fault.  Mr. Ward asks what might happen if Sprint sells the Katasi system that claims to prevent such accidents, and then some glitch happens and somebody sneaks through a text and crashes anyway?  Why, Sprint could be sued!

Pardon me, but it appears that there's more going on here than meets the eye.  Any time a small independent company comes up to a big firm and offers the big guy new technology, the not-invented-here problem can raise its ugly head.  Short of buying the small upstart outright (which happens a lot, by the way), if the big firm adapts the small company's technology, they will be on the hook for royalty payments or other forms of obligation that big companies don't want to be tied down to.  And there's also the simple pride factor expressed by the phrase "not invented here"—if we didn't think of it first, it can't be that good. 

Besides, it's not clear who would make enough money to offset the expenses of the added hardware and software—and lawyers' fees, if Mr. Ward's fears turned out to be correct.  The existing GPS-based solutions for text blocking in cars aren't exactly selling like hotcakes, even after all but five states have adopted no-texting-while-driving laws of one form or another. 

One could imagine a legal solution:  make something like the Katasi text-blocking system mandatory by government fiat.  Nobody has seriously put forward that idea yet.  But it might happen.  There was a time when ordinary window glass was used in automobiles, with the result that otherwise minor wrecks turned deadly when razor-sharp knives of glass flew around and sliced—well, enough said.  But when the technology of laminating glass with a plastic inner layer was developed around 1920 to keep the shattered pieces together, auto companies adopted it, partly motivated by fear of lawsuits.  Eventually, most countries made it a legal requirement for all glass in automobiles to be laminated or safety glass, but it looks like the firms were ahead of the government in that case.

Safety glass is a different kind of thing than automatic text-blocking.  An auto company could start using safety glass and just raise the car's price incrementally, and hardly any customers would notice the change.  But as soon as you stop a person from doing something that they're used to doing, like texting while driving, you create a sharp negative impression.  And that's something that cellphone providers are reluctant to do as long as there are competitors ready to take business away.

My hat is off to Mr. Tibbetts, who put five years and millions of dollars into developing a clever technological fix for a significant problem.  But as many engineers turned entrepreneurs have learned, building the better mousetrap­—or text trap—is only part of the problem.  Convincing people to buy it and use it is often harder than coming up with the invention itself.  If everybody used something like the Katasi system on their cellphones, we would all be safer, no question about that.  We would also lose a little freedom of judgment which we can now exercise, which is whether to text while driving.  Perhaps some telecomm industry leaders will get together and agree to adopt Katasi, or something like it, but such inter-company cooperation for a non-financial thing like safety is a rarity.  It could happen, though.  I bet Mr. Tibbetts, for one, hopes that it will. 

Sources:  The New York Times article "Trying to Hit the Brake on Texting While Driving" by Matt Richtel, appeared in the online edition on Sept. 13, 2014 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on on-board diagnostics, windshields, and safety glass. 

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