DOT’s distraction guidelines as challenge and opportunity

DOT’s distraction guidelines as challenge and opportunity

For OEMs, the proposed distraction guidelines that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced last week shouldn’t come as a shock. The administration stated that it was working on the recommendations throughout 2011 (at TU Detroit last June, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland made it clear the guidelines were in the works), and most OEMs were able to weigh in on the guidelines during the creation phase.

As a result, the proposed guidelines (all 177 pages of them) contained few surprises. NHTSA wants OEMs to limit complexity of tasks and off-road glances, and it wants OEMs to disable certain in-vehicle electronic devices while cars are in motion, like manual text messaging, manual Internet browsing, and manual social media browsing. Compared to the National Transportation Safety Board’s bombshell in December, when it voted to urge all 50 states to ban all cell phone use while driving, including hands-free use, NHTSA’s guidelines seem relatively tame. (For more on the proposed distraction guidelines, see What DOT’s new distraction guidelines mean for telematics.)

But tame doesn’t make the guidelines any less significant. “This is another indication,” says Matt Howard, CEO of ZoomSafer, “that driver distraction is on the government’s radar and that there has to be a plausible set of technologies, whether OEM-embedded or otherwise, that allow people to be focused and safe while staying connected in the car.”

“This is a wake up call,” adds Joel Hoffmann, partner strategist in the automotive solutions division at Intel and a GENIVI Alliance board member. “It’s also an opportunity. From a technology perspective, these are challenges we can answer.”

Regulatory clarification

One impact of the proposed guidelines is a simple clarification: We now know which government agency is responsible for regulating distraction due to in-vehicle connectivity. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had postured as if it would own it, since the FCC regulates wireless communication. And the Department of Transportation, of which NHTSA is a division, had parried back that when it comes to wireless in the car, that’s the DOT’s territory. The proposed guidelines from NHTSA seem to offer a definitive answer.

“I was on a panel with representatives from NHTSA and the FCC,” Howard says, “and they said the same thing: ‘NHTSA owns this, and it’s going to own it and figure it out.’” Figuring it out will cause NHTSA to expand into foreign territory. For the first time in its history, the administration will have to regulate not just one but two massive industries that it’s never regulated before: wireless carriers and handset manufacturers.

“I can guarantee you that there’s not an employee at NHTSA that knows Samsung,” Howard says. “Now they’re trying to regulate it. They’re going to have to be very, very creative and innovative in terms of partnering with the automobile industry to figure out the right blend of standards and services between automobiles, handsets, and phones.”

Telematics impact

For the telematics industry, particularly those on the user interface front, the guidelines eliminate some of the wiggle room when it comes to what features can play on the dash. Granted, the guidelines are only proposed and voluntary in their present state, but after the public commenting period, and once NHTSA incorporates OEM feedback, the guidelines will likely become voluntary standard guidelines that OEMs need to follow. “No one’s gong to be stupid enough to make a car that doesn’t comply,” Howard says.

That’s because OEMs know that if they don’t comply, NHTSA will simply just go ahead and make the guidelines required. Therefore, the proposed guidelines likely represent the new parameters within which infotainment must operate: limited complexity, disabled manual phone and Internet features when the car is in motion. A heightened demand for voice-enabled features may emerge as a result.

“Listening to the radio seems to be the model for distraction, the level of safety acceptance that everyone is comfortable with,” says Len Konecny, vice president of business development at Clear Channel Total Traffic Network. “So I think we’ll see a lot of text-to-speech applications start to emerge.” Joel Hoffmann agrees. “Voice recognition will become big,” he says. (For more on voice recognition, see Can voice recognition make telematics services safer?, Telematics and voice recognition: Overcoming the tech challenges, and Telematics and driver distraction: Telcos take control.)

He says that the GENIVI alliance won’t be on the front lines of this issue, as it deals with standardization for cloud-based apps intended for the vehicle—middleware and software—not the user interface that OEMs actually embed in the dash.

Nonetheless, he says that standardization around safety is important and likens the situation to seatbelts. When they first came out, drivers had a choice, and many chose not to wear them because they were uncomfortable and poorly designed. Now seatbelts are required, and it really isn’t an inconvenience because seatbelt design has advanced to the point where they’re perfectly comfortable to wear.

“I think that same process could happen here,” Hoffmann says. “And it’s something within the realm of possibility. Automating the driving function is a massive undertaking with aligning computers and roads, whereas automating the IT that we bring into cars is something we know how to do.”

Every enterprise in the world has an advanced IT knowledgebase, he points out. Now it’s a matter of harnessing that knowledgebase and using it to discern when certain devices are being used in certain functions: “I think we’ll see cars hitting the market in the 2016 time frame that are a lot smarter about connecting drivers and minimizing distraction.” Game on. (For more on distracted driving, see Why telematics is the answer to distracted driving and Driver distraction: The battle over in-car apps.)

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on distracted driving, visit V2X Safety & Mobility 2012 USA on March 20-21 in Novi, MI.

For more all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2012 on March 26-27 in Amsterdam, Content & Apps for Automotive 2012 on April 18-19 in Germany, Insurance Telematics Europe 2012 on May 9-10 in London, Telematics Detroit 2012 on June 6-7, and Insurance Telematics USA 2012 in September in Chicago.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports on In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report, Human Machine Interface Technologies and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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