Eight American states are considering regulating the use of Google Glass. Google is lobbying at least three of them not to, reports Reuters. The states worry Glass will distract drivers and lead to crashes. The company thinks it is too soon to ban the use of Glass while driving.
At first brush, this sounds like one of those “evil” things a giant company more worried about shareholders than citizens might do. According to Reuters, “Google’s main point to legislators is that regulation would be premature because Google Glass is not yet widely available.” That is not terribly convincing; surely it makes sense to ban the things than risk losing lives.
It is hard to know what data-backed arguments Google is presenting. The company responded to a request for comment with a boilerplate statement: “Technology issues are a big part of the current policy discussion in individual states and we think it is important to be part of those discussions. [W]e find that when people try it for themselves they better understand the underlying principle that it’s not meant to distract but rather connect people more with the world around them.”
In the coming years, cars are going to change unrecognizably. We will interact with them not through buttons and dials but by waving our hands, talking to them or, with eye-tracking technology, simply by looking around. Legislation is not prepared for that sort of change. Does talking to your car constitute the same sort of distraction as talking to somebody else on a hands-free device? Are larger and larger dashboard display screens the equivalent of looking at a Facebook post? Arguably not, because you’re looking to the screens and talking to your car about road-related things while a Facebook update from your ex-boyfriend might trigger an emotional, and therefore distracting, response.
Wearable devices present their own problems. If you can take phone calls on your watch, surely that poses a danger. “Even with a watch that’s on your wrist while you’re driving, there may be some laws that may be adjusted so you can’t look or talk to your watch even though you’re not holding it,” speculates Shai Leib of Ask Ziggy, a company that is working to bring natural speech recognition to cars. But then fiddling with your stereo is potentially distracting too. This isn’t a trivial matter: According to the US government, 3,328 people were killed on US roads due to distracted driving in 2012. Yet only 18% of distracted-driving related fatalities involved mobile phones. There are lots of ways to be distracted.
What Google is arguing, therefore, is simply for a more considered approach to regulation. It seems intuitive that something that sticks a screen an inch away from your eyeball would encourage you to take your eyes off the road. But the nature of technology is changing how we drive, and the people making it are acutely aware of the pitfalls that come from being involved in anything dangerous—both to their users and to their reputations.
It is right to want to eliminate potential fatalities. But no amount of legislation has stopped some people from continuing to use their phones while driving, even though 41 US states ban texting while driving and 12 states prohibit the use of handheld cell phones while driving. New devices pose a bigger challenge yet because of the indeterminate nature of what, exactly, they are. They deserve a considered debate.