While many are hailing the potential benefits of fully- and semi-autonomous vehicle systems, Andrew Silver – co-founder and chief technology officer for Tango Networks, a mobile device management system developer – argues in the second of two guest columns that the introduction of autonomous vehicles won’t necessarily remove the dangers posed by distracted driving. And technology may to play an expanded role in this are to ensure the safety of the humans occupying such vehicles.  

Distracted driving is a major contributor to the recent sharp rise in motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. And the National Safety Council (NSC) cites texting, calling and general mobile phone use by drivers as a major component of these deadly distractions.

As a result of this distracted driving “epidemic,” there’s been an uptick in legislation to criminalize unsafe use of mobile phones such as texting while driving.

But such laws have been on the books for years, are hard to enforce, and plainly are not enough on their own to prevent risky behaviors.

Most importantly, legislation is necessarily reactive – penalizing infractions, not preventing them. There may be some deterrent effect, but the sharp rise in auto deaths implies it is not sufficient on its own.

So we’ve turned to technology for a solution, with the popular notion that distracted driving will cease to be a problem thanks to autonomous cars that eventually will be able to “self-drive.”

But as we explored in the previous article in this series, today’s consumer vehicles are not ready to let us be safely distracted behind the wheel.

Taking distractive issues with mobile phones one step further, what level of car autonomy will make it safe to text and drive?

And, until that day comes, what other sorts of technology can we deploy to reduce the distracted driving risk posed by mobile devices?

Autonomous Driving & Texting

Studies show that any mobile device usage can distract drivers. That’s true even of hands-free phone calls. Anything that takes absorbs your attention, immersing you in another activity like having a conversation, will distract you from the road.

The NSC reports, for example, that a driver on a hands-free phone call will look but fail to actually see an estimated 50% of the information from the environment.

If talking on the phone creates this sort of inattention, then watching a video or texting creates an even greater hazard.

The question, then, is when autonomous vehicles will reach a level of sophistication at which it will be safe to text and drive, for example.

As explained in my last column, the international standard for levels of driving autonomy defined by SAE International provides a spectrum of driving automation, from Level Zero to Level Five.

Level Zero means no automated driving at all. The human driver does everything.

It’s only at the upper levels of automation, Levels Four and Five, where vehicle systems are doing most of the tasks of driving, including watching and responding to the environment.

Yet Level Four requires the human driver to be alert and ready to take over driving immediately if the car detects a condition with which it is unable to cope.

So: is Level Four good enough to permit texting and driving?

A study by the University of Southampton released earlier this year found that it took between about two seconds and 26 seconds for a driver to take control from an automated driving system.

The delay was longer when the driver was engaged in an attention-distracting secondary task. It takes a driver of an autonomous vehicle up to five times longer to respond to an emergency braking situation than someone driving manually, the researchers said.

At a 26-second delay, a car going 70 miles per hour will move half a mile before the brakes are applied.

This all implies that Level Four automation is not sufficient for a driver to be texting if an emergency braking situation arose. A vehicle with Level Four automation is supposed to be able to take appropriate action if the driver does not respond to a request to take control. But if the system’s action is to safely stop the vehicle, then the journey is interrupted.

Hence it is only at the highest level of development, full automation at Level Five, that the system is sufficiently sophisticated to operate the vehicle without any human attention whatsoever. That is the only point at which we can say it is truly safe to text and drive.

We are years away from such vehicles being available in production versions. Thus even the most advanced autonomous driving technology announced for upcoming vehicles incorporate the need for constant human driver attention.

For example, GM announced in April that a 2018 Cadillac model will feature a hands-free driving system that the company touts as the industry’s most advanced.

But among the system’s advanced features is a driver-facing camera designed to track the human driver’s head motions to ensure that the driver’s attention is focused on the road. If the driver is inattentive, the system emits alerts or can even stop the vehicle altogether.

We can conclude that even today’s most advanced system still needs driver attention.

Defeating Distracted Driving Today

As we wait for autonomous driving technologies mature, there are technical approaches to reducing distracted driving risk today.

These technical solutions need to meet certain requirements for them to be effective in reducing distracted driving risk:

  1. They need to be comprehensive and address all potentially distracting devices within the driver’s environment.
  2. They need to be enforceable at all times and not turned off or suspended by the user.
  3. They need to be real-time and dynamic, applying device use policies based on locations, conditions, time of day, local regulations and so on.

An example of a technology that addresses these points is based on a network-based mobile policy enforcement system.

Often deployed by fleet operators and logistics companies that employ drivers of commercial vehicles, this type of system blocks a driver from using their mobile phone to make calls or send messages.

But the system’s policy would still permit the driver to call an emergency number or even to the dispatcher. Or the driver could place calls in certain conditions or environments, such as when the vehicle is stopped or driving below a certain speed limit.

Most importantly, these systems are impossible for the driver to bypass at their discretion because they operate and enforce policies in the network itself, not on the device.

As a result, they provide the fleet operator or insurance carrier the ability to set, enforce and audit the mobile device policy consistently.

This type of system provides a way to reduce distracted driving risk today while we wait for practical full automation to become available for autonomous vehicles – a type of technology can be integrated with automated driving systems as they move toward Level Five.

Such safety enhancing technologies will of course become even more flexible and effective as the communications between vehicles and the emerging “smart” infrastructure becomes more widespread. The next article in this series will explore the rise of smart infrastructure and how it will further reduce distracted driving risk.