Telematics, regulation and driver distraction

Telematics, regulation and driver distraction

In mid-May, Google steered its latest driverless car, a Prius with a spinning laser sensor on its roof, to the streets of Washington, D.C., where it demonstrated that self-driving technology is quickly nearing reality and ready for regulatory reckoning from the capital.

That same week, a jury in Texas handed Coca-Cola a $21-million verdict for failing to enforce a comprehensive cell phone driving policy, which led to an employee getting into an accident while using a mobile phone and driving. The company, the jury ruled, not the employee, was liable for the damages. As consumers increase their use of technologies in cars, and as the auto industry integrates more connected solutions into vehicles, the need for regulation is becoming clearer.

But what regulation looks like and how it views in-car connectivity is still very much up for debate. Are embedded connected solutions a source of distraction or a defense against it? What’s the best way to meet consumer demand while addressing safety threats like manual texting? And what sort of regulatory stance will actually be enforceable? (For more on distracted driving, Distraction guidelines as a telematics business opportunity and Driver distraction: The battle over in-car apps.)

“It has to be done in a way that makes sense to consumers,” says Michael Petricone, senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). He points to studies that have shown crash rates to actually increase in states that ban manual texting while driving. “There are not enough police in the nation to prohibit drivers from doing what they want to do,” he says.

Regulation and responses

To date, government organizations have taken widely different tacks on the regulation issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently proposed a set of voluntary guidelines that argue that in-car offerings pose a fundamental threat to driver safety. At the same time, the regulations acknowledge that that threat can be mitigated or eliminated altogether if automakers limit or disable certain functions when a vehicle is in motion. (For more on NHTSA’s proposal, see What DOT’s new distraction guidelines mean for telematics and DOT’s distraction guidelines as challenge and opportunity.)

At the other end of the spectrum, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has argued that all portable electronics devices are a hazard in a vehicle and must be disabled altogether when a vehicle is in motion (other than for emergency use).

“It's time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving,” said Deborah Hersman, chairman of NTSB, upon the recommendation’s release in December 2011. These regulations would not only prohibit cell phone use but would stymie any embedded solutions that harness smartphones.

In early May, CEA issued an official response in which it disagreed with the NTSB’s broad recommendation, stating that there is no real-world evidence to support such a blanket prohibition unless one would also ban other potential distractions, such as eating, drinking, applying make-up, and engaging with children while in the vehicle. “Distracted driving is the problem, not the device,” says Petricone.

More importantly, banning devices and in-car solutions would inhibit the very technologies that are improving safety, Petricone suggests: “There are all kinds of telematics devices that are coming into cars very rapidly that have the prospect of greatly enhancing driver and roadway safety.”

He pointed to Google’s wireless car demo in D.C. “It’s clear that there are not only exciting technologies already in vehicles, but that extraordinary technologies are on the verge of being implemented,” according to Petricone. “Broad, prescriptive regulations are not equipped to deal with an area of technology that is evolving so equally.”

Nonetheless, broad prescriptive regulations continue to be floated. The next year is therefore critical as industry and government dialogue about the most sensible ways to bring codes and mandates into the telematics mix.

Safety first

During this period of back-and-forth, Petricone suggests that industry needs to maintain that it, too, is on the side of safety. In CEA’s case, Petricone says his organization takes driver safety as seriously as the organizations proposing outright bans on technology in vehicles. He points to this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where an entire pavilion was devoted to safe driving and new ways to enhance driver safety.

From the industry perspective, however, two points are important. First, it’s better to harness technology to enable in-car connectivity that consumers want but within limitations that automakers and government regulators can ensure are safe. That way consumers have access to the services they feel they should be entitled to, but within safe parameters.

Secondly, education is critical. If you go back 20 or 30 years, people used to be very casual about drinking and driving; the expression ‘One for the road’ literally meant to take a drink when leaving a party. Drivers often ignored seatbelts and parents failed to restrain children in car seats. “Social mores change with education,” Petricone says.

Widespread ads about drinking and driving along with campaigns like ‘Click it or Ticket’ have finally impacted the way people behave. Petricone says the same thing is already starting to happen with technology in cars: “It’s common with new technologies that the social mores governing how you use them take a while to catch up. It took a while for us to figure out as a society that puling out a cell phone and answering it in middle of a movie theater or a dinner at a nice restaurant was wrong. Now we realize that’s rude. Likewise, a general societal consensus is emerging that texting while driving is idiotic.”

At the same time, these societal shifts take time, and the industry must play a positive role in expediting the process.

Andrew Tolve is a regular contributor to TU.

For more all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics Detroit 2012 on June 6-7, Insurance Telematics USA 2012 in September in Chicago, and Telematics Munich 2012 on October 29-30.

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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