With concerns mounting over the safety of cell phone use while driving, Motorola’s Driving Simulator Lab in Tempe is testing mobile phones that can analyze driving conditions and avoid distracting the driver.
The device, called a "polite" phone because it helps the user drive politely, has been researched and tested for about two years, and Motorola is ready to discuss the project publicly, said Mike Gardner, director of intelligent systems research.
Gardner will make a presentation on the project at a forum on driver distraction in October in Toronto, Canada, but no decision has been made by the company on when, or even whether, to make the technology commercially available, he said.
"We are evaluating it to determine what the next steps should be," he said. "The reaction has been positive, but we have more work to do."
The software programmed into the phone can detect if the car is parked or cruising or in complex driving situations. If the car is parked, all incoming calls are are allowed through to the speaker phone. It also senses if the driver has entered the car and automatically transfers any ongoing calls to the speaker phone.
If the car is cruising on the highway, the only calls that are accepted are those from a pre-programmed phone book list — the ones the user wants to go through. All other incoming calls are routed to voice mail.
If the telephone detects the driver is frequently braking and moving the steering wheel — an indication of complex driving conditions — all calls are routed to voice mail. It will retrieve those on the driving list when the driving situation clears.
If the phone senses an air bag deployment, it will automatically initiate a call to a predefined number such as 911 or a loved one with an accident alert and location.
The phone receives the driving-context information from a small one-and-a-halfinch square "bus sniffer," a small black box that plugs into the diagnostic port built into every car built since the late 1990s. The port ordinarily is used by auto mechanics to diagnose problems when the vehicle is brought into the shop for repairs, but it can also be used to monitor driving conditions while the vehicle is in motion, Gardner said.
The system uses shortrange wireless technology such as Bluetooth or 802.15 to transmit the information to the cell phone.
Potentially any cell phone that is Bluetooth enabled could be programmed with the software to make the system work, Gardner said.
The idea is to make the system totally seamless to the cell phone user. The user would simply set the handset into a holder when he or she steps in the car and lets the phone decide which calls to accept.
Gardner said it’s too soon to know what impact the system would have on the cost of a cell phone or the cost of subscribing to cell phone service.
Also, providers of cell phone services say it’s too soon to know if it would be a feature they would want to offer their customers. But they said they are concerned about the issue of driver cell-phone distraction.
About 25 percent to 30 percent of all traffic accidents are distraction-related, although not all of those are due to cell phones. But the number of minutes that people spend on cell phones in their cars is increasing. An estimated 40 percent of all cellular minutes take place in motor vehicles, according to industry estimates.
As a result, state legislatures are starting to look at regulations. New York and New Jersey have passed laws that prohibit drivers from using cell phones while the vehicle is in motion unless they can be operated hands free.
"We have taken a leadership position in the whole area of driving responsibly," said Jenny Weaver, spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless. "We have supported legislation that allows for hands-free use."
Lauren Garner, spokeswoman for Cingular Wireless, said her company offers education programs on how to handle distractions while driving, including programs aimed especially at teenage drivers.
Ken Colburn, president of Tempe-based Data Doctors Computer Services, said the smart-phone technology has "all kinds of possibilities" for parents worried about their teenage drivers.
"If you can control how cell phones are used by teenagers while driving, that’s huge," he said. "There’s no contesting that cell phones are being used in dangerous situations. As a parent, I would think it has all kinds of possibilities."