smartphones should save dumb drivers

 Posted by on February 11, 2012 at 23:34  applications, mobile  Add comments
Feb 112012

How much do you increase your risk of causing an accident if you close your eyes for a second or two every now and then while you are driving? At 40 MPH your car will move almost 60 feet for every second your eyes are closed. Other cars will too. And they’ll turn, stop, bob and weave. Yet we all take this risk if we use our phones while driving. When was the last time you looked at your iPhone at 40 MPH?

Tests such as this one by Car and Driver Magazine show that texting and driving can be more dangerous than drinking and driving, for example texting while driving causing more than 10x slower reaction time to events than being drunk. Their methodology isn’t perfect but we all know that driving while not looking is risky business.

SaveLives app
When engaged, the SaveLives app blocks your phone’s inputs and blacks out the screen, preventing you from playing Russian roulette while driving, aka driving blind while peeking at your Droid to read one more tweet. The SaveLives app is automatically started when you are driving a car. When we are driving, SaveLives effectively shuts down our texting, emails, Facebook…any app that depends on us looking at our screen…until we stop our cars. The SaveLives app enables our smartphones to save us from ourselves, and from each other. It prevents us from acting on the belief that we can safely send that quick text – and perhaps 99% of the time being correct – but with potentially fatal consequences for the 1% of the time in which we are wrong.

Engaging the SaveLives app
It would be easy for the app to engage when your phone’s accelerometer detects your phone is in motion above a certain speed threshold. But what if you are not the driver and therefore want or even need full use of your smartphone? This part is trickier – leave suggestions in the comments – one possibility:

In the future, cars will integrate a few Bluetooth or NFC devices into different areas of the car. SaveLives enages when your smartphone accelerometer detects motion above a minimum threshold, unless NFC (“swipe” NFC targets positioned close to seats other than the driver’s seat) and/or Bluetooth (triangulation between the distributed Bluetooth devices) determines that you are not the driver. The Bluetooth/NFC interface specs should be be open and published so other apps can leverage the same infrastructure. NFC or Bluetooth checks are required periodically in case the phone moves around your car during the trip. Of course all of the above only works with smartphones, so doesn’t for example prevent text messaging on older “feature phones”, but we won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Need some financial incentive? Insurance companies will give you better rates if you have the Bluetooth/NFC chips installed in your car and reports published by your SaveLives app prove it is being used. Much better rates. Perhaps the setup will even be mandated, or at least required for drivers that have “earned” it (accident history, high risk category, etc.). Even outside of any external incentives, would you mandate it for your family members? Would you prefer to buy a smart car that had the Bluetooth/NFC infrastructure already installed to a car that didn’t (meaning automakers should benefit financially as well).

SaveLives won’t block our navigation apps
Not blocking apps that can work passively after they are launched is why SaveLives blocks screen inputs and blacks out your screen, rather than completely locking your phone. As long as you engage your passive app prior to motion, and your app doesn’t require you to look at your screen or give inputs other than voice once the app is launched, your app will run just fine. Voice commands are not blocked and neither is communication with any devices or peripherals that your phone is controlling, e.g. when your phone is controlling apps inside your connected car like the stereo or rear DVD player. Answering inbound phone calls? Sure, as long as you do it with a voice command.

Skiing with our iPhones
You are skiing, biking, or even running very fast. You pass the speed threshold to engage the SaveLives app, but you aren’t in a car so can’t prove that you are not driving it. Pairing the accelerometer with GPS will address some of these cases, but not all. This is another reason why SaveLives blocks screen inputs and blacks out the screen, but doesn’t block mobile apps that can run passively once they are launched. Start your fitness app, music, ski cam, etc. before you accelerate. It will run fine. Need to interact with the app before you come to a stop? Only if that interaction is enabled by methods other than taps on the screen, e.g. the ski cam stopping to record once your motion stops, or a running app sending you audio alerts based on your pace or distance.

What do we do now?
What methods do we use to engage/disengage SaveLives before the Bluetooth or NFC setup is available in the smart cars or connected cars of the future? Add your ideas in the comments. We’d probably need multiple methods, which in total or in combination might address the majority of use cases. For example combining these two methods isn’t foolproof but would address some of the problems:

  1. SaveLives could make us prove that we aren’t driving the car – engage when the accelerometer detects speed above threshold – only disengage if we can beat a game or solve a puzzle that requires a couple of minutes of constant attention. Concerns with this method are people trying to beat the game while driving, even if it is near impossible, or asking others in the car to beat the game and then pass them the smartphone (periodically requesting the puzzle to be solved by non-drivers would be a pain point that many people would object to, unlike the Bluetooth or NFC checks which can be done behind the scenes or with minimal impact). However, some impediment is better than no impediment, as long as the try-to-beat-the-game-while-driving population is smaller than the current population of drivers that cause accidents while distracted by smartphone use.
  2. If there is more than one smartphone in the car, peer-to-peer communication between SaveLives mobile apps could enforce a policy by which at least one of the total number of phones in the car needs to have SaveLives engaged if the car is in motion.

Of course the second method only works when there are multiple people in the car with smartphones with Savelives. However, the two methods could be combined with the first method to prevent the driver from passing his phone to others to beat the game, and then taking it back while driving.

The connected car or smart car of the future will certainly be loaded with bells and whistles that we’ll love. I think the smartphone itself will play a critical role in controlling and enabling many aspects of that connected car experience. I hope that the smart car of the future will also be safer for it – whether via SaveLives, a similar app, or an entirely different set of methods.