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Regulators Ask Smartphone Manufacturers To Reduce Driving Accidents

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed new guidelines that would ask smartphone makers to reduce driving accidents. Although the guidelines wouldn't be enforced by the federal government, as each state legislates its own drivers, the NHTSA's plea could still convince manufacturers to act. If it does, those companies might want to look to the VR and AR industries in their search for a solution to this deadly problem.

The agency said 10% of the 35,092 fatal traffic accidents in 2015 resulted from distracted driving; another 16% of non-fatal collisions involved at least one driver whose eyes weren't on the road. The NHTSA wants smartphone companies to work together with automobile manufacturers to create systems that would prevent drivers from texting, watching videos, or otherwise using their phones while their attention should be on the road.

The NHTSA called the change Driver Mode. It proposed two options for enabling this feature: Automatically detecting when a vehicle is moving faster than 5mph, or requiring drivers to manually activate the tool, much like they do with the Airplane Mode that comes standard with today's smartphones. Both have their drawbacks. Automatic detection could fail to distinguish between drivers and passengers, and drivers might never manually activate the tool.

"As millions of Americans take to the roads for Thanksgiving gatherings, far too many are put at risk by drivers who are distracted by their cellphones," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx."These commonsense guidelines, grounded in the best research available, will help designers of mobile devices build products that cut down on distraction on the road."

But what if companies used some of the technologies upon which VR, AR, and mixed-reality experiences rely? Systems could track someone's position within a vehicle, for example, to determine whether or not someone is trying to use a smartphone while they're in the driver's seat. This would allow Driver Mode to automatically turn on without frustrating anyone who wants to do something with their phone while somebody else is driving the vehicle.

Another option would be to include eye-tracking within the smartphone itself. The NHTSA said in its proposal that people look away from the road for 23 seconds on average when they send or receive a text message. That's about one-third of a mile if the vehicle is moving at 55mph, and with almost half a million people using their phones while driving at any given time, that means a large portion of U.S. roads are being traversed by distracted drivers.

The agency wants drivers to divert their attention from the road for no more than two seconds at a time; it also wants concrete tasks, like picking a song, to take no more than 12 seconds to complete. Eye-tracking technologies would make it easier to enforce those guidelines. Instead of banning activities outright, Driver Mode could make it so the display can only be viewed for two-second intervals before a driver is told to pay attention.

Such a setup could offer a compromise between automatic detection and manual activation. Drivers could be given a choice between having certain tasks disabled while their vehicle is in motion or using eye-tracking to limit how long their attention is diverted, for example, or by having their phone automatically enter Driver Mode if nobody else is in the vehicle but require manually turning it on if more than one person is using their phone.

All of these systems are likely to be more capable thanks to the surge in popularity of VR, AR, and mixed reality. Companies might not invest a lot into position-tracking or eye-tracking if they weren't trying to enable more immersive experiences, for example, and trying to fit all these systems into a small room or into an HMD itself means they could easily fit into all but the smallest of vehicles. Tech is a distraction; it might also be a life-saver.

The NHTSA is seeking comment from the public, the automotive industry, and smartphone manufacturers on its proposal. The comment period will last 60 days after the guidelines are published to the Federal Register, and all submissions will be made available on the Regulations.gov website. The agency did not say when it expects to publish the official version of the guidelines, nor when it would like companies to heed its advice on this problem.