Blue Line

News
Distracted on four-wheels


May 5, 2014
By Tom Rataj

Distracted driving is bad enough but it’s about to get a whole lot worse. An onslaught of new connectivity technologies will make it even easier to use phones while on the road.

Bluetooth and 3.5mm headphone jacks are fairly standard equipment in cars these days, offering hands-free telephony and the ability to play audio from smartphones and MP3 players.

Many lower end systems connect dashboard and steering wheel controls with smartphones and MP3 players into menus on car stereos and/or instrument panel displays. Voice recognition and control is available on some systems.

A few higher end vehicles now feature large (seven or eight inch) fixed or pop-up display screens as standard equipment, or as an expensive technology package upgrade option.

Advertisment

These technologies are at the core of what is often called an “infotainment” (information + entertainment) system. They integrate vehicle information and controls, along with GPS navigation and phone connectivity, with entertainment sources such as the car-stereo system and audio and video feeds.

The more sophisticated systems often allow USB connectivity in addition to Bluetooth and some higher end vehicles even offer an integrated WiFi network to host a wide variety of functions and provide connectivity.

There have been a flurry of announcements and demonstrations recently from all major cell phone and automotive manufacturers as everyone tries to get positioned correctly in the markets. Licence fees and ending up on the winning side are major factors in the marketing push.

The apparent demand by consumers for smartphone integration is substantial. A recent Forester Research survey found that half of North Americans shopping for a new car in the next 12 months say “technology options” are an important consideration.

The impacts all this technology will have on traffic safety remains to be seen, although the social media and text messaging functionality will likely be even more of a detriment than today because it will be easier to use. Text to speech will help but it will still be cognitively distracting.

Some of the technologies that accompany these systems will, fortunately, be quite beneficial, if implemented properly. Crash avoidance such as lane departure warning and blind-spot monitoring, rear-facing cameras, traffic flow and congestion monitoring and GPS navigation with spoken turn-by-turn assistance can all contribute to safer and more efficient driving.

{Rules and regulations}

Federal and provincial regulations will all need to be updated to take into account these technologies. Currently, most provincial and territorial traffic legislation addresses the use of “handheld” devices and restricts their use by the driver. Only Nunavut does not have legislation addressing this.

Most of the legislation deals with only cellular and smartphones, although some, like Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act, also covers handheld entertainment devices.

Penalties for violations range between $100 and $400 and up to four demerit points.

Transport Canada regulates equipment rules for vehicles manufactured and imported into Canada. It doesn’t currently have any regulations or guidelines dealing with smartphone integration and infotainment systems. It refers inquiries to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) guidelines.

The NHTSA prescribes what will be permitted and provides very thorough guidelines for vehicle manufacturers and the software developers creating apps for these systems.

{Studies}

There has been plenty of research into the effects of various distractions while driving. Several years ago I wrote about a study done using a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine. It showed that even listening to a conversation (as on the other end of a phone) caused substantial drops in brain activity in the area that controls the skills used for driving.

In a more recent study, subjects were tested using a driving simulator while being monitored by an fMRI machine. The researchers found that the distracted test subjects’ brains suffered in the areas that managed visual attention and alertness, making it more difficult for them to perform secondary, cognitive tasks like driving.

All this scientific research aside, just driving to and from work or patrolling clearly demonstrates that drivers perform poorly even just talking on a cell-phone. Those holding the phone to their ear are usually worse.

Drivers physically interacting with their phones, even to just look-up and dial a number, are a crash waiting to happen. Some studies suggest the distraction from cellphones is on par with being impaired by drugs or alcohol.

There is an endless stream of news stories about serious crashes and fatalities linked to the use of cell phones. A North Carolina woman recently posted “The Happy Song makes me so HAPPY” on her Facebook profile at 8:33. The local police department got a call about a car crossing the grassy median and crashing head-on into a garbage truck at 8:34. The correlation is inescapable.

Smartphone integration with vehicle infotainment systems will just change the interaction methods but I suspect it will not improve the situation.

{Police mobile data}

Many of us have been fortunate in the last 25 years or so to have mobile data terminals and computers available in our patrol cars. They provide a wealth of information and can greatly improve officer efficiency, but they are also another distraction while on patrol.

Between listening to the dispatcher, talking on the radio and keeping a sharp eye on surroundings, the mobile computer can have a dangerous detrimental effect on our driving. Add in the additional distraction and stress of responding to a hot call with lights and siren and the multi-distractions become a serious problem.

Many police services have policies in place that either prohibit or discourage the driver from using the mobile computer while driving, although I suspect compliance is relatively low.

Responding to these issues and a number of crashes attributed to mobile computer use, the Farmers Branch Police Department in Texas recently installed a system on its mobile computers to lock the screen once the patrol car speed exceeds 25 km/h. The Archangel II system locks the screen and keyboard, although it will still display updates from the dispatcher and GPS mapping system.

{The technologies}

On the smartphone side, the main battle involves Apple versus Google Android, the two market leaders. BlackBerry and Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform don’t have much of a direct presence.

BlackBerry’s QNX Division completely dominates the worldwide automotive computer market and appears best positioned to provide a smartphone connection platform for everyone else’s systems.

Microsoft has gained a lot of experience with its Ford Sync system, although some rumours suggest that it will soon be discontinued.

The best technology will be a device independent platform that works seamlessly with anything connected to it through an industry standard USB connection.

Here is a brief rundown of the major competing or complementing technologies:

• CarPlay – An Apple technology available on select 2014 models that integrates and mirrors the iOS user interface on the vehicle display.
• iPOD out – An older version of the CarPlay tech that allows the iPod’s native interface to be displayed on an in-car display.
• DNLA – The Digital Living Network Alliance standard establishes interoperability guidelines for sharing digital media between multimedia (audio and video) devices.
• MirrorLink – This technology basically replicates a connected device’s user interface on a secondary display when connected by USB, Bluetooth or WiFi.
• Miracast – A peer-to-peer screen-casting standard that wireless sends audio and video between devices (similar to MirrorLink). This is still fairly new and acts as a kind of wireless HDMI cable.
• OAA – The Open Automotive Alliance standard will be an Android-centric technology for connecting Android-based devices to automobiles. No products are available yet.
• W3C Group – An automotive and Web platform business group formed to accelerate the adoption of Internet technologies in the automotive industry.
• Ford Sync – A well-established factory-integrated in-vehicle communications and entertainment system that connects to cell phones. It is produced by Microsoft and is available in almost two dozen Ford and Lincoln models.

There are plenty of changes coming to how we interact with our cars and cell/smartphones. The potential benefits are likely outweighed by the dangers. Any technology, no matter how good, that takes a driver’s attention away from driving the car will be detrimental to road safety.