Car key jams drivers' cell-phones

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The university has obtained provisional patents and licensed the invention – Key2SafeDriving – to a private company that hopes to see it on the market within six months at a cost of less than $50 per key plus a yet-undetermined monthly service fee.

According to Xuesong Zhou, an assistant professor of civil & environmental engineering who co-invented the system with University of Utah graduate Wally Curry, at any given time, about 6% of drivers talk on a cell-phone while driving, and 10% of teenagers are talking or texting while driving.

The system includes a device that encloses a car key – one for each teenage driver or family member. The device connects wirelessly with each key user's cell-phone via either Bluetooth or RFID technologies.

To turn on the engine, the driver must either slide the key out or push a button to release it. The device then sends a signal to the driver's cell-phone, placing it in ‘driving mode' and displaying a Stop sign on the phone's display screen.

While in driving mode, teen drivers cannot use their cell phones to talk or send text messages, except for calling 911 or other numbers pre-approved by the parents – most likely the parents' own cell numbers.

Incoming calls and texts are automatically answered with a message saying: "I am driving now. I will call you later when I arrive at the destination safely."

When the engine is turned off, the driver slides the key back into the device, which sends a ‘car stopped' signal to the cell-phone, returning it to normal communication mode.

The device can't be tricked by turning the phone off and on again because the phone will receive the driving mode signal whenever the car key is extended.

Adult drivers cannot text or use a handheld cell phone, but the Key2SafeDriving system does allow them to talk using a hands-free cell phone. Curry says the inventors had to face the practical issue of whether adults would buy a product that completely blocked their cell-phone use while driving.

Curry's initial idea was a GPS system to detect a moving cell phone and disable it when it moved at driving speeds. However, someone else developed a similar system based on the same idea, but it can't distinguish if the cell-phone user is a driver or passenger in a moving car, bus or train.

Ronn Hartman, managing partner of Accendo, says that if things go as planned, the Key2SafeDriving system won't be sold directly to consumers by a manufacturer, but the technology may be licensed to cell-phone service providers to include in their service plans.

Accendo provides early stage business consulting and ‘seed funding', and has licensed the Key2SafeDriving technology from the University of Utah and is working to manufacture and commercialise it.

Hartman envisions gaining automobile and insurance industry backing so that Key2SafeDriving data on cell-phone use (or non-use) while driving can be compiled into a ‘safety score' and submitted monthly to insurance companies, which then would provide discounts to motorists with good scores.The score could also include GPS data recorded on the driver's speeding, rapid braking or running of lights, which are calculated by comparing the driver's position with a database of maps, speed limits, stop lights, etc.


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