Consumer Electronics, Driver Distraction, and You

A Techwise Conversation with NHTSA administrator David Strickland

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Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

A poll taken back in 2005 found that 9 out of every 10 Americans are on the road on an average day, for an average of 87 minutes. About as many of us have mobile phones.

The combination can be lethal.

According to a 2009 U.S. government research note, driver distraction was involved in 16 percent of all fatal crashes and 22 percent of all injury crashes.

As if it weren’t bad enough, both the cellphones and the cars are getting smarter and more entertaining.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that, quote, “Undaunted by fear of safety regulations, automakers are piling new technologies into their vehicles: everything from 17-inch dashboard screens to services that check Facebook and buy movie tickets.”

In the U.S., the agency responsible for our safety on the roads is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In addition to driver distraction and driver impairment, it’s concerned with teen driving, child safety, seat belts, fuel economy standards, and crash tests.

The head of the NHTSA is David Strickland. Before joining it in 2010, he was the lead Senate staffer involved with the agency, as well as the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. He has a law degree from Harvard, his official bio says he’s an avid motorcycle user, and he’s my guest today. He joins us by phone from his office in Washington, D.C.

Steven Cherry: David, welcome to the podcast.

David Strickland: Thanks so much, Steven. Really happy to be here.

Steven Cherry: David, there’s more to driver distraction than car electronics. How much of this problem is technology’s fault?

David Strickland: Well, I mean, distraction—even though Secretary LaHood has really done a great job in taking leadership and bringing focus to the issue of distracted driving because of technologies, handheld cellphones, texting devices, what have you—distraction has actually been an issue, a safety issue in the fleet, ever since the advent of the automobile. And we’re always working very hard to figure out the proper human-machine interface, if you will, to make sure that we maximize time of eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. But in terms of the attention of new devices that really induce, sort of, I guess, legal terms, I guess, it’s called an attractive nuisance. The notion here is, How do we deal with an issue where people want to live a digital lifestyle in every aspect of their lives? And how—and if, you know, the sort of one-two questions that are being posed to the agency, you know, how they could be integrated or if they should be integrated at some level. And that is work that is ongoing. We have released our first proposed guidelines for in-vehicle technologies in terms of how devices can be integrated into the vehicle safely, and we think that we’re working very hard to find the right balance, using sound finds and engineering and data to sort of find that right zone of safety while at the same time giving manufacturers freedom to provide services and equipment that consumers want.

Steven Cherry: Not just want, but I think that from the automaker perspective, I think they would say they are trying to make it safer for us to use the electronics they know we’re going to use anyway, right? If I’m going to change songs on my iPod, isn’t it better that I do it through the dashboard controls, or, you know, isn’t it better if my car reads a text message aloud or answers a phone for me?

David Strickland: I think it’s absolutely right from the perspective that they feel, you know, consumers—and drivers specifically, not so much consumers, but drivers—they are getting so many capabilities from their portable device, you know, an Android device or an iPhone or even a BlackBerry, they provide turn-by-turn navigation, but clearly turn-by-turn navigation on a screen that’s less than 4 inches, you know, in diameter is not ideal for the driving environment. It’s providing you radio services, like Pandora, for example, and a lot of other things which are, you know, in terms of information that is additive to the driver experience and in some situations can be supportive of the driving experience in absolute increased safety. And the manufacturers make an argument that people are going to bring these devices into the vehicle already, so why don’t we create an environment—knowing that this is what consumers are going to do—let’s create an interface which does allow them to do it safely. And you know what? I think to a certain degree that is, you know, from, you know, my perspective—purely, you know, as the head of the agency and not my researcher’s perspective—I think that commonsensical notion is right. You know, you’re seeing on the roads of Washington, D.C., here every day, we have one of the strongest handheld cellphone ban, detecting bans, in the country. And, you know, the secretary notices and I notice it all the time. People are still, you know, at stoplights tapping in, or holding their cellphone to their ear while they’re driving down I-395. So there’s clearly—between the enforcement and the education and the personal responsibility notions which are key to anything regarding automotive safety, we need to think about how the vehicle can support the right activities the safe way. And I think not only the agency but the automakers are of like mind on this issue.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I hadn’t actually thought about it, but I guess sort of counter-intuitively the larger screen might be the safer screen. And I guess if something like Pandora does a terrific job of picking songs, then I don’t actually have to fiddle with the radio, which has been a driver distraction problem since, I don’t know, 1950.

David Strickland: Oh, absolutely. The right thing, because part of the in-vehicle guidelines that we had proposed—and we had our first public hearing on this here in Washington, D.C., on Monday, and I’m actually, right after I’m finished talking with you, I’m going to be heading out to Chicago for the second public hearing tomorrow, then we’re going to be finalizing those hearings in Los Angeles at the end of the week—you know, but one of these things is the notion that a person should be able to accomplish and read or tap a screen within 2 seconds. Within 2 seconds: It can’t be any longer than that. Or if [it’s] a complex task, which takes multiple functions, it should take no longer than 12 seconds. One of the things that help support a driver in being able to accomplish tasks quickly is being able to easily and quickly see what they need to in terms of gathering information and making a decision. So you’re right: Actually having a really good display that doesn’t have scrolling text, that doesn’t have long lines of text that have to be read like a book, if it’s the right interface, it does actually improve safety.

Steven Cherry: Now so far we’re talking about voluntary guidelines. Would actual regulations be on the horizon as well?

David Strickland: Well, at this point we’ve found that we’ve been very successful using guidelines for the industry in terms of encouraging particular technologies and designs. For example, if you’ve noticed, with new faster cars and new light trucks, like SUVs and pickup trucks, etc., that their bumpers are matching up better when you’re in a crash. That was actually done by guidelines, and the manufacturers voluntarily worked together to align bumper heights so that you have better protection for both a passenger car and a light truck. And that was—that is something that you would traditionally think should be a regulated notion, but we gained great success. And in addition to that, I think one of the things that we always have to think about from a regulatory standpoint is, the greatest thing that a person can do is take personal responsibility on the road. You know, because there’s going to be the evolution of electronics and devices that are going to be coming onto the market, you know, while we like to think about, you know, a broad platform which sort of captures all risk, you can’t capture anything. It really is incumbent upon drivers to really make the right self-assessment behind the wheel and make sure they take personal responsibility in being prepared to drive every single trip. In terms of making sure your belt is on, you’re alert, you’re aware, you’re not impaired, and you’re not distracted.

Steven Cherry: And you should just mention for our non-U.S. listeners that the guidelines or regulations would be on the manufacturers, not on the drivers in the U.S., that’s the job of states and municipalities. I should [say], along those lines, the U.S. is hardly the only place with lots of drivers and lots of smartphones. What are other countries doing?

David Strickland: Well, I’m not as familiar with the—there’s varying levels of regulation around the world in terms of the devices and technologies. I know [in] the European Union there is actually some fairly strict laws. You know, but on the other hand, you know, America’s guidelines of action probably are the most comprehensive. I think that we have had the largest explosion of this type of devices, and we’ve had a much longer range of research undergoing to sort of build this. But I know that Europe and Japan have—definitely have—their set of driver distraction guidelines, and I think it’s a lot of stuff that we’ve definitely referred to, and there’s some very good ideas in their guidelines that we have frankly folded into our proposed guidelines. But in terms of the breadth and the scope, the guidelines issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are probably the most far-reaching of any country.

Steven Cherry: David, looking at the longer term, a modern car can have as many as 200 onboard sensors that are measuring everything from tire pressure to screen temperature to the distance to the car ahead of it. Cars have dozens of microprocessors running tens or even hundreds of millions of lines of code. The Toyota sudden-acceleration problem was never figured out. Are cars just getting too complicated?

David Strickland: Well, actually, the great thing about electronics and their promise is, not only does it help in terms of supporting the driver, I think one thing you have to think about is crash-avoidance technology, like Ford collision warning or crash-imminent braking, like lane-keeping assist systems, you know, advanced automatic crash notification—all these things are an aspect of these new systems that are coming on board, which greatly increase the margin of safety. It also works to improve fuel economy, while the fly-by-wire systems are taking mechanics out of the vehicle, which actually reduces vehicle weight without compromising rigidity of structure—another benefit of having good electronics. And finally, you know, the question about our cars being too complex: You’ll notice the problem of complexity isn’t so much about the vehicle, it’s about the human-machine interface. And you know, I think our behavioral work and the manufacturer’s behavioral work trying to make sure that drivers are not overwhelmed when they get into a vehicle—and one of the reasons why we are working hard on these proposed guidelines is to make sure that, you know, drivers are not being overwhelmed by what’s on board in the dash. But I would probably say, if you look at the records, I don’t have them in being across the board, I think the life span of the average American vehicle now is long or longer than it’s ever been. So in terms of the notion of quality of vehicles being auto-grade, being able to sustain you know, useful life on the road for 10 years or more, I think a lot of these issues, reasons why you’re able to see these improvements in safety and also in quality, is because of the electronic systems and the car being able to do more, being able to indicate maintenance cycles, and all these things people are now expecting. So I think if anything, electronics are a great benefit, and frankly the next great safety breakthrough in having crash-avoidance technologies being fully implemented throughout the fleet is going to save thousands of lives over the long term.

Steven Cherry: In the really long term, there’s the question of cars just driving themselves. Ever since the Air France 447 crash a few years ago, people have started to wonder if we should just let planes fly themselves. Are we getting to that point with cars in the future?

David Strickland: Well, we have a long way to go. There’s a lot of research being undertaken in the private sector being led by the automotive manufacturers themselves and actually some great work done by Google specifically on the viability and ability for autonomous operation—or a “self-driving” car, if you will, to not use the widely overused term or phrase autonomy here. I think what you’re going to see, and you’re already seeing in the fleet now and in the near term, is there’s going to be particular functions that will support the driver. As I say, crash-imminent braking: Now there’s systems that can read if a driver is beyond the point of no return in hitting the brakes before they...upon impact...that the vehicle, if it’s less than 20 miles per hour in some situations, can actually bring the car to a full stop before impact, whether it’s a car or even, in some instances, pedestrians. You have, as I also mentioned, lane-keeping systems that can read the lines in the road to make sure that your car is...stays in the middle of the lane even if you’re not paying, you know, as close attention as you should be and you’re maybe veering, etc. You also have, you know, automatic cruise-control systems that can be integrated to keep you at a certain distance between each car. So these things all support the driver and improve the margin of safety. The autonomous systems that are going to lead to a fully self-driving car, I think, is a long way off and poses a lot of policy questions. But we think that the foundational research that the manufacturers and other entities are taking actually support some great technologies which can make driving safer for everybody.

Steven Cherry: The other big comparison between automobiles and airplanes is that we’re starting to see some of the black-box technology that was developed for planes show up in vehicles. Is that mainly for, you know, insurance companies and sort of police diagnosis of an accident, or do they make cars safer as well?

David Strickland: Well, the data recorders really are investigative tools for the agency, in terms of trying to figure out postcrash what were the particular conditions, you know. What was the change of speed, for example, the angle of impact, for example, and then some other pieces of that nature. But in terms of what, you know, the black boxes in the airplane do, it is a vastly different notion of what an EDR or the data recorder is on an automobile. But really it is a tool to help us figure out postcrash what happened. Specifically, what they’re made for in automobiles is to figure out whether or not, initially, whether the airbag deployed or not, whether the brakes were applied or not. All of those really sort of simple conditions which can help us in a defect investigation. And that’s the reason why they’re such a valuable tool. But they are not, you know, devices that are meant to monitor behavior, track where you are and those other additional conditions. It’s a very simple set of data which really only helps us figure out in the case of a postcrash incident, if there was a particular defect. And we think that that particular purpose is the one that’s going to hold great promise in helping us in future defect investigations.

Steven Cherry: There is the potential for them to be used in that sort of, you know, your-car-is-spying-on-you way, right?

David Strickland: Absolutely not. I think that right now, the regulations in terms of what the event data recorders are allowed to recover, are those very simple notions. And I think that there’s going to be…any sort of expansion of that has to be done by an act of Congress, and I think there’s lots of privacy concerns on top of that, as you said before. But in no way, shape, or form will an EDR evolve into some notion of being able to track an individual’s comings and goings. I mean, it really is postcrash data about speed, angle of direction, whether your airbag deployed, whether the brakes were applied or the accelerator was applied. That’s it.

Steven Cherry: That’s pretty reassuring, but it does occur to me that we have seen a little bit of that sort of mission creep with the automatic toll collection devices, where in theory you could tell that a person had exceeded the speed limit just by when they entered the highway and when they left it.

David Strickland: Well I mean, from toll collection and sort of the E-ZPass system and things of that nature, clearly has the ability, I suppose, if someone wanted to interpret particular data—but that really is beyond the statutory scope for those particular devices. And I think there’s always, if you look at any particular electronic device, Steven, there is always the ability to leverage it to something beyond its mission, but I think it’s really up to the regulators and the government to make sure that it does not do that. And that’s what we do. But of course, you know, any particular system has the opportunity to be simply leveraged into something more, but I think the key to it is to work cooperatively with the public at large to make sure that you don’t have this type of mission creep. I mean, the purpose for us in the EDRs is postcrash information investigation for purposes of identifying defects. And we’re never going to go beyond that.

Steven Cherry: David, you know, Americans love their cars, maybe even more than beer and football. Cars are getting really complicated; half the country wants less regulation, and half the country wants more; you have a really tough job. So let me just say, thanks for doing it and thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

David Strickland: Well, Steven, thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about distraction, and, frankly, these other issues. It really is an exciting opportunity to talk to a whole lot of engineers. I—unfortunately, I’m the head of an agency that’s full of engineers, so I have great respect for what you all do every single day, and I wish I could do one-tenth of what you all do every day, but I do my best as a simple country lawyer trying to make sure I can take care of an agency that has a great mission.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Thanks again.

David Strickland: Thank you, sir.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with National Highway Traffic Safety administrator David Strickland about the increasing problem of driver distraction. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 14 March 2012.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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