Telematics and driver distraction: Telcos take control

Telematics and driver distraction: Telcos take control

Consumers fiddling with cell phones while driving pose serious safety risks to themselves and others. With the mobile handset still most drivers’ primary source of connectivity while in the car, mobile network operators are stepping up to provide solutions before the government bans all uses of in-car applications. (For background on US efforts to ban the use of infotainment apps while the car is in motion, see ‘Driver distraction: the battle over in-car apps’.)

While mobile operators have been somewhat behind the scenes so far in this nascent industry, letting the automakers brand and market services for the connected car, they are now pitching their own branded solutions. In January 2011, T-Mobile announced DriveSmart, a solution created by Location Labs that locks the driver’s cell phone screen and redirects calls to voicemail when the car is in motion. DriveSmart also blocks text message alerts and auto-responds that the driver is unavailable. The app does allow access to three key contacts and three mobile applications, such as GPS navigation. A later enhancement, DriveSmart Plus, allows parents to override the app when they know that their teenagers will be passengers, rather than drivers, in the car.

In March, Sprint announced Drive First, a similar solution from Location Labs, saying it planned to make the application available in the third quarter. Both carriers will charge a monthly subscription fee for the service, creating a recurring revenue stream along with driver safety.

John Horn, national M2M director for T-Mobile, says his company is working with individual automakers to enable their strategies as it also develops its own, network-based products. “We can’t tell the OEMs how to do it,” Horn says, “but I think they want to be good citizens as well. As an industry on the wireless side, we want to be the best citizens regardless of what the OEMs are doing. We can still be good citizens by launching services like DriveSmart and DriveSmart Plus.”

Brought in or baked in?

Tim Johnson, Sprint’s strategic opportunities manager/connected transportation, who is leading Sprint’s Connected Transportation Initiative, says the carrier—along with the rest of the industry—is still evaluating the best method for incorporating this kind of safety control. “There is a lot of very tangible effort under way on the part of OEMs on platforms baked into cars,” he notes. “We are looking into whether we can take what we’re working on and marry it to the existing technology already in cars, or provide technology they can modify so that the holistic experience for the customer is the best possible.”
T-Mobile’s Horn notes that, even when a mobile carrier is not collaborating directly with an automaker on safety apps, work can be done in a coordinated way. “We don’t have a contact with Ford, but you can drive in a Ford with DriveSmart and get the benefit,” he says. “You can work in tandem with the automaker, but you don’t have to.”

While automakers may have originally been more focused on services they could provide, rather than what they should provide, Johnson says that they have definitely gotten the safety message, thanks to a trek to Detroit by US Secretary of Transportation Roy La Hood: “Maybe there was more of a tradition to allow tier 1 providers to take the lead, but now they very much see that they will be the culpable ones, so they need to have a very focused effort there. They get it, for sure.”

Turning the tables on tiers

As in so many other infotainment efforts, the chain of command from OEM to tier 1 on down has given way to the round table, crowded with partners. It’s not even clear who gets the best seats at the table, according to Johnson: “This has got so many key participants to be part of it that it’s not who’s in charge of it so much as who are the co-chairs. OEMs and wireless carriers are the ones to lead it—and the government, obviously.” (For more on strategic partnerships, see ‘Why telematics firms need to work with wireless developers’.)
The wireless industry has its own OEMs and manufacturing tiers, all of which need to come to the table. Handset OEMs need to provide technology to assist, as do makers of phone operating systems; their gear needs to interoperate with that produced by manufacturers of hardware embedded in the car, along with the head unit operating systems, software platforms, and applications. There are also new opportunities here for makers of cameras, voice recognition systems, and speed and motion sensors, in both the hardware and software sectors. “It’s hard to have more than one cook in the kitchen, but it’s an area of great opportunity,” Johnson says. “An effective solution can come from any of those participants around the table. There won’t be any one solution.” (For more on cameras, see ‘Telematics and in-car cameras: Privacy versus opportunity’; for more on voice, see ‘Telematics and speech recognition: Finally ready for prime time?’.)
Automakers, wireless network operators, and all their partners are racing to solve the problem of driver distraction before legislators take the lead. Says Horn, “The market is moving quickly, and everybody is doing something different. So trying to create any kind of standard will slow down adoption and development in the market. Right now the competitive marketplace is creating unique solutions.”
Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest telematics trends, join the sector’s thought leaders at Telematics Detroit 2011 in Novi, MI on June 8 and 9.

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