Chen says the technology could be used by existing distraction-prevention apps to make them smarter. But the researchers are also working on a new suite of apps to leverage the driver sensing. One, in development at Rutgers’ Winlab, would notify people on your contact list that you are driving—and may even add prompts asking potential callers whether the call is a true emergency, says Janne Lindqvist, a Winlab researcher developing the app.
Another app in development integrates driver detection with calendars—making it easy to notify participants in an imminent meeting whether you’re running late. “If you are driving, this could become a one-button text message,” says Marco Gruteser, an associate professor at Rutgers. “It’s an interface question on the phone, so you don’t have to go through finding contact information and making the call.”
The Rutgers and Stevens group first demonstrated the driver-detection technology in the lab last year, but have since implemented it on phones and integrated it into apps. They are also working on simplifying the algorithm so that driver detection only takes half of the current seven to eight seconds.
The group plans to conduct studies this spring to determine whether the apps actually change people’s behavior, says Lindqvist. The technology will find its way into commercial offerings within a year, likely through licensing agreements, he predicted.
As well as calling for a ban on mobile device use, the NTSB also called for these sorts of technology solutions. “We have a problem here and it’s growing worse,” says Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of NTSB. “Technology has brought many of these challenges, but technology holds the key to the solution, too. Detecting the driver is a very critical piece.”
The key downside of the Rutgers and Stevens technology is that it relies on Bluetooth, which is absent in most older cars—and not universally available on new models, either. Even in cars with Bluetooth, it is good but not perfect; because of varying cabin sizes and speaker configurations, it accurately detects the driver in 90 percent of cars, and produces false positives in the single percentage range, Gruteser says.
It’s clear that technology solutions are badly needed, says Marcel Just, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University. In a study published in 2008, Just used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that merely listening to someone speak reduces brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.
“It seems to me that disallowing cell phone use while driving through some technology fix is a good thing,” he says. “You can imagine it being legislated, and you can imagine insurance companies instituting an undistracted driver discount.” But to be effective, any technology fix would have to be widely implemented, and difficult for the driver to circumvent, he says.