The Disrupters: smart tech can end distraction crashes says German Autolabs

AI will help banish distracted driving, Holger Weiss tells Louis Bedigian.

Distracted driving is one of the leading causes of automotive accidents. In 2015 nearly 3,500 Americans were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver. There have been several efforts to resolve this issue but that hasn’t reduced the number of deadly crashes occurring every single day.

Holger Weiss, founder and CEO of German Autolabs, believes the solution is in smart technology. His start-up developed Chris, a digital device that aims to keep drivers connected to their smartphones without any distractions. “Drivers of millions and millions of cars are using their smartphone while driving,” said Weiss. “Not all of them, but the numbers say up to 85%. They use it in part for making phone calls but the majority are using it for messaging.”

Drivers also user their phones for navigation, bypassing in-car options for apps made by Google, Apple and Microsoft. Weiss attributed this to the superior quality provided by those apps, which offer up-to-date traffic information, among other benefits. Unlike a traditional GPS, however, phones were not built for the car – they were designed for frequent, touch-based interactions and require the user to look directly at the device. This has fostered a dangerous trend, as many consumers aren’t willing to ignore their phones while sitting behind the wheel.

Said Weiss: “The smartphone delivers paralysing information. That’s fine if you’re at your desk or living room but drivers need to prioritise and contextualise information. You need it in sequences, meaning that if you’re approaching a highway exit and you’re listening to a navigation command on your phone and there’s a WhatsApp message coming in and it makes you miss the turn command, it’s a really bad experience.”

Better driving through artificial intelligence

While device connectivity has become an important part of automotive development, tech companies have yet to figure out the magic formula for simple and seamless integration. Weiss expects natural language processing (NLP) to help bridge the gap and deliver a more desirable experience. “It’s on the rise with systems like Siri, Alexa and Cortana, allowing you to interact with machines in a very natural way,” said Weiss. “It allows you to interact with content that is specialising, sorted or prepared for you, hopefully in a way that’s not distracting.”

Drivers are still distracted, however, particularly in the United States where more than 40,000 traffic deaths occurred in 2016 alone. Weiss added: “They call it the ‘Snapchat effect.’ All countries have this phenomenon that smartphone usage while driving has a very bad influence on casualties and accidents on roads.”

Fewer temptations

If consumers could access their devices simply by talking to them, they may not be as tempted to reach down and take their eyes off the road. That is just one piece of the puzzle, however. Weiss envisions an AI system on par with the movie Her, which focused on an intelligent operating system that could communicate with the user as believably as an actual human. He wants AI to really know the driver and understand his or her needs. At the very least this would allow for easier and more comfortable interactions. Long-term, the AI could learn to prioritize certain elements (such as notifications) over others and omit any that could become a distraction.

Said Weiss: “Another dimension is to understand the type of driver. For example, are you an aggressive driver or defensive driver? The kind of person that speeds to 75mph to overtake a truck and take an exit? Those are stressed people! You don’t want to deliver messages to them while they’re doing any type of action like that.”

On the other hand, a more laid-back driver may be able to receive those messages because they would be less of a distraction. This is something the AI would have to learn over time. “That actually would lead to a kind of profiling, in a positive sense, in that the system can learn – in which situations – what type of action it should provide,” Weiss added.

Monetary hurdles

Many industries have been disrupted by start-ups that use online connectivity and/or mobile devices but few entrepreneurs have been successful in disrupting automobiles. Even smart technology – a key part of future auto development – could be dominated by big players in the tech space.

“I don’t think there will be a start-up at the moment that will beat Watson,” said Weiss, referring to IBM’s advancement in AI technology. “IBM is such a powerful company and they have a lot of money and all these industry links.”

Entrepreneurs may be equally deterred by the monetary challenges of autonomous technology. Said Weiss: “It’s a very costly field. You see this with the recent funding rounds and acquisitions, it’s really high. The average autonomous start-up in the Valley is starting with not less than $10M (£7.9M) , $15M (£12M) in the first round. That’s a lot of money to start a company.”

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