Monday, June 23, 2014

Editorial: Regulating smartphone apps for drivers might not be such a bad thing

This past weekend, I, along with what felt like every single person in the Boston metro area, headed down to Cape Cod to enjoy the official start of summer. Getting down there, we mapped the route and took advantage of the information that Google crowd sources through Waze to try to avoid the accidents and excessively heavy congestion. As grateful as I am for the access to the information, I cannot help but wonder if in the process of collecting the individual data points from users, smartphone apps like Waze might be inadvertently contributing to the very problem it was intended to help people avoid.

Driving down the road, it was clear that many of the drivers on the road were busy looking down at their phones and not paying attention to the road. For example, the number of people camped out in the left lane at just under the speed limit, too busy gazing deeply into their phone to bother to check their rear-view mirror periodically. The same thing appeared to happen on the return trip with a number of people seemingly totally unaware of a fast approaching ambulance, lights and sirens blaring.

This week, the NHTSA and the White House announced a new proposed transportation bill that would place limits on smartphone map apps that many users may utilize while behind the wheel. While it is too early to know exactly how they may go about actually implementing such regulations, it already has many smartphone hardware and software makers rather anxious. Automakers, on the other hand, are quickly getting behind such regulation. While at first glance, even the proposal of such regulation might seem like government overreach of the worst kind, but there might just be a silver lining to this situation.

Image courtesy of Autoblog.com
The smartphone and in-car infotainment industries have been on converging paths for sometime now. As smartphones have gotten more powerful, people have become ever more reliant upon them to replace older in-car systems such as CD players and even built-in navigation systems. For many drivers, the ability to play their music and access their phone book is now a prerequisite for purchasing a car. However, the in-car experience currently often requires actions that take the driver's attentions from the road, causing everything from minor inconvenience to major accidents. Perhaps this legislation, or even just the mere threat of it, will accelerate the pace of integration of smartphones as the primary device powering the in-car infotainment experience.

Earlier this year, Apple announced the first major step towards full smartphone integration with its CarPlay standard. Google is hard at work on an integration for Android devices in collaboration with the Open Automotive Alliance. Taking advantage of the ever increasingly powerful smartphone devices that nearly all of us carry with us wherever we go anyway allows automakers to focus less on unsuccessfully trying to create an in-car infotainment experience (I'm looking at you, Cadillac) and instead focus on giving us great cars while allowing us to use the already powerful smartphone-bound applications we already have access to.

While I have my reservations about allowing access to certain apps from behind the wheel, I can see the tremendous value in allowing drivers to make ever greater use of the always upgradeable device in our pockets instead of relying on something built into the car that will easily be outdated almost by the time it rolls off the dealer lot.