Cars must block or badger texting drivers says NHTSA safety researcher

Motorists refusing to give up texting while driving could force more draconian in-car technology that could block all but basic voice functionality, US vehicle safety regulators have warned, after concerns that in-car distractions aren't being taken seriously. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) laid out its goals for cutting the amount of time drivers aren't watching the road earlier this year, but the agency's associate administrator for vehicle safety research has raised concerns that drivers simply won't comply with guidelines – one proposal for which suggests all phones should be paired with an in-car "nanny" system that would selectively allow certain functionality – and must be forced into safer behaviors instead.

Speaking at the Telematics Detroit 2013 conference this week, the NHTSA's Nathaniel Beuse described an "ultimate solution" where the car would identify when a driver was using a phone in a distracting manner and actively block the handset, Wired reports. The regulator set out two possible routes to such "a technological solution" with various degrees of complexity.

Technologically most flexible, though unlikely to gain acceptance from all drivers, is connecting a phone to the car's informatics system. That would act as a gatekeeper, Beuse explained, allowing through voice calls but stopping drivers from reading or sending text messages, playing video, browsing through Facebook and Google+, and other distracting tasks.

"[That would require] 100-percent compliance to get drivers to pair their phones," Beuse conceded, however. As well as car owners simply refusing to hook up their device, it could also have a high technological barrier; if it's not sufficiently straightforward, he pointed out, those behind the wheel "will be right back to using their handhelds."

That leads to Beuse's second – and more straightforward, if blunt – solution, which would see some sort of sensor which would identify when a driver was using their phone, and effectively annoy them until they stopped. Similar to a seatbelt reminder, the system could be integrated either into the car or into mobile devices themselves.

Although the NHTSA staffer is hoping for 100-percent compliance from drivers, car manufacturers, and mobile device makers, neither option seems quite fully baked. Blunter systems to block connectivity would have a knock-on impact on cars that rely on tethered smartphones for their web connectivity, for instance, and the various systems already offered in cars for doing voice-to-text with SMS and email messages would also have to be fettled to integrate properly.

Nonetheless, it seems that the NHTSA is unwilling to let go of the idea of keeping drivers attention on the road ahead. The proposed standards would require any audio/visual function to take less than two seconds of attention, with no more than six screen-touches in any 12 second period permitted.

Back in April, the NHTSA said it planned to phase in the guidelines voluntarily over the next three years. The standards build on 2012 suggestions which threatened to hamstring Tesla-style complex touchscreen dashboards.

VIA: Slashdot