Driving can be fun, but it’s often routine. For every scenic trip, there are weeks of commuting. Meanwhile, mobile phones have become little entertainment centers designed to combat boredom.
Popular music, independent films and social interactions are only a tap away. The road can’t compete with such engaging handheld distractions. This is a growing problem in need of a radical solution.
Distracted driving claimed 3,477 lives in 2015. Alcohol and sleep deprivation were already causing enough trouble behind the wheel. We didn’t need another massive source of traffic accidents.
We have laws to prevent distracted driving in the US. It’s illegal to text in 47 states. Most don’t allow young drivers to use cellphones at all. There are even 15 states that don’t let drivers talk on their handheld phones while they’re driving.
Some apps fight distracted driving by blocking text messages. One company sells a gadget that plugs into a socket under the car’s steering wheel to block distractions. Apple iOS 11 has a new Do Not Disturb While Driving feature. It connects to the car’s stereo via Bluetooth.
Car manufacturers are inventing new ways to protect drivers as well. BMW’s iDrive interface allows drivers to gesture at the navigation screen to answer a call. Ford SYNC reads text messages aloud and lets the driver dictate responses. GM launched eye-tracking technology in the 2017 Cadillac CT6. It senses when a driver is looking at their phone.
If the auto industry, nonprofits, government and tech can’t solve this problem — who can? Every available solution is incremental. There’s no comprehensive way to stop distracted driving on the market today. But there is one new technology that will resolve this issue once it reaches the mainstream…
Living in the Palo Alto area from 2013 to 2016, I saw self-driving cars almost every day. Modded Lexus SUVs would drive up and down a major roadway in Mountain View called Rengstorff Avenue. The Google logo would glisten on the side of the car as passengers took notes on clipboards. These prototypes have spread all over the Bay Area. Competitors are even starting to appear in San Francisco now.
As novel as they are today, these vehicles may be the only way to stop distracted driving. I know that’s a long time to wait if you’ve lost a loved one or been in a distracted driving accident yourself. The timelines make sense though. As the number of distractions continues to climb, early autonomous cars are emerging.
Elon Musk claims we’re two years away from Level 5 autonomous driving. That means under any conditions, everyone in the car can take a nap and the vehicle will take care of itself. During an April 2017 TED conference, Musk said, “Essentially, November or December of this year, we should be able to go all the way from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York, no controls touched at any point during the entire journey.”
In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz writes, “The primary thing that any technology startup must do is build a product that’s at least ten times better at doing something than the current prevailing way of doing that thing. Two or three times better will not be good enough to get people to switch to the new thing fast enough or in large enough volume to matter.”
Horowitz’s philosophy is widespread in the Valley. The only 10x solution to the problem we face with distracted driving is self-driving cars. If people no longer had to look at the road, everyone would be safer. Today’s attempts to end distracted driving are already overshadowed by the prospect of fully autonomous vehicles.
It’s hard to fathom how soon every car will drive itself. Recode provides a helpful timeline. They suggest if we exclusively manufacture self-driving vehicles by 2030, it will take about 15 years for traditional vehicles to disappear. By all accounts, the rate of accidents will drop even before then. McKinsey & Co predicts self-driving cars could prevent 90% of all accidents in the US.
When cars operate themselves, we’ll be able to give our mobile devices the attention they deserve. It might happen sooner than we realize. Until then, let’s put our seats upright and stash our phones in the glove compartment.