Smartphones can and must go from causing car accidents to saving lives

Ugh. Don’t do this. Just don’t.
Ugh. Don’t do this. Just don’t.
Image: AP Photo/LM Otero
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With one letter, I realized that my career had become a calling. And that I had a long road ahead.

I was working for Mercedes in the early 2000s on mbrace®, a groundbreaking connected car system. This technology has changed plenty over the years (more on that in a second), but the killer app–indeed, the savior app–is still crash notification. When a car in a collision can instantly notify emergency services, it saves precious minutes. And much more, as that letter made clear:

“Mercedes saved my wife’s life. Thank you.”

It just took one. But others just like it kept arriving. I knew then that I couldn’t turn back. Yet I was also drawn to a new path, far from the car industry giants.

I had spent time on innovative teams at Deutsche Aerospace and EADS (what is now Airbus Group) before joining Mercedes. I also regularly saw the corporate barriers to adapting with the speed of technological change. The iPhone debuted in 2007, and I marveled with every other geek at the dawn of the smartphone era. I could have only imagined the radical shift it would spark for connected cars–and the incredible danger it held for distracted drivers.

We can’t seem to stop looking at our phones, even behind the wheel. The US Centers for Disease Control counted 3,328 distracted driving deaths in 2012, up 9% from 2011. In 2013, there was an increase in distracted driving-related injuries. Distracted driving is rapidly overtaking alcohol as the top cause of accidents, especially among young people. Mix in some bad weather too, and you have one worrisome cocktail awaiting us out there.

Which brings me back to the new path and new technology I’m chasing today. As the founder and CEO of Driversiti, I’m working to democratize connected car technology through a focus on smartphone software. Today, along with big players in the connected car space, I’ll be speaking at CES 2016 about how we can reinvent the phone-car connection in 2016, and the immense market potential therein. 

While mbrace, OnStar, and similar products were revolutionary safety advancements, their benefits have always been limited to users who could afford them. Today, each of our pockets hold the sensors, connectivity, and other elements used by these systems. We just need software to unlock the possibilities. Even better, cloud- and mobile-based updates can be distributed nearly overnight, rather than the 17 years it takes for pretty much an entire car population to be refreshed on the road as we all finally trade in our clunkers for newer models.

The smartphone also enables features that centralized systems can never offer, because the technology is interacting directly and constantly with car occupants. Driversiti smartphone software can understand whom within the vehicle is using the device. If it’s in the driver’s hands, it can automatically flag distracted driving behavior based on the car’s movement and situational factors. It detects speeding and aggressiveness. As more users come online, it will also allow for networked intelligence that can account for dangerous intersections, conditions, and more.

Some argue that phones should be banned from the driver’s seat altogether–indeed, many laws already target distracted driving. Our phones aren’t going anywhere, though. In fact, the above benefits they offer when used constructively are difficult to ignore. Smartphones and networked drivers bridge the gap to a driverless and truly integrated transportation future, when cyclists, pedestrians, and the human drivers left are looped in via their devices.

Now, I offer my company’s solution as just an example of the solutions that are now possible for every driver. I talk to parents at PTAs all the time who are extremely interested in ways to keep their kids safer. This is about much more than business. Though the two are obviously intertwined for me, saving lives has always been the bottom line–whatever the technology provider.

That’s why I shake my head at those with the power to deliver this technology to us all right away. Car companies are limited by purchasing cycles, startups by adoption challenges, and the government is hamstrung by, well, take your pick. But the cell service providers of the world already have a direct line to our central nervous system, so to speak. They work in tandem with Apple and Samsung and other phone manufacturers. Why aren’t they doing more to give us clear heads behind the wheel?

If carriers were to mandate changes to the ways that operating systems and equipment handled distracted driving, it could pay life-saving dividends right away. It’s a sentiment echoed by my colleague Professor Larry Burns, a veteran auto industry engineer and Driversiti advisor who consults with Google on their driverless car program.

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is already doing studies to require manufacturers to implement vehicle to vehicle safety technology,” Burns says. “How is it any different from requiring carriers to include safety technology in their devices?”

We can’t rely on regulation, though. Instead, we can organize and amplify efforts to make carriers hear the call to increase our protections on the road. Momentum (and evidence) for this movement is building.

As we look forward to a safer 2016, it’s the perfect time to raise awareness–before another family is left wondering what might have been.