While states consider ban, automotive industry considers integrating Google Glass into the driving experience

The tech industry waited with bated breath last year as rumors formed surrounding tech giant Google’s anticipated release of a hands-free computer which could fit in a pair of glasses and project information into consumers eyes. The product, Google Glass, launched a kind of beta version in May allowing a limited number of “explorers” to test drive the product as the bugs are worked out. The product received mixed reviews from the tech world and met with privacy concerns once some individuals realized that they could be filmed without their knowledge thanks to the technology. Now as some automakers are attempting to integrate Google Glass into the operation of certain vehicles, some state lawmakers are considering banning the technology from  the nation’s roads.

Only two automakers have officially announced attempts to integrate Google Glass into their vehicles:  electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla and German luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz. Both automakers cater to a wealthier clientele  that may be less likely to balk at the anticipated $1,500 price tag for Google Glass.

Much like a smartphone, this kind of wearable computer runs applications or “apps.” Tesla’s app seems to be designed to be used while outside the car. The app allows the user to find and receive directions to charging stations or to the car itself, to honk the horn or flash the headlights and to control the sunroof and climate.

Mercedes-Benz’ goal is a bit broader. They want to improve the driving experience as a whole by creating what they call “door-to-door navigation.” The Google Glass unit provides directions when you are walking and the navigation app switches to the in-dash unit when the user is in the car.  But integration of the system for Mercedes has been complicated by the adversarial relationship between Google and another tech giant. Mercedes-Benz has traditionally only supported Apple’s  iPhone platform for previous integration efforts with the Digital DriveStyle app. Google Glass, a product of Apple’s chief smartphone rival Google, is in turn, not supported by the  iPhone. Mercedes is working on an app to make the transition smooth once Google Glass becomes available to the general public.

Wired Magazine thinks this is just scratching the surface of what Google Glass can do for the driving experience. Reporter Damon Lavrinc writes that  using the navigation program while driving will be a source of popularity for the product. Google will likely include a pre-installed navigation program with Google Glass  as it does on most of its Android smartphones. This could prevent drivers from having to look down at their phones or the in-dash navigation unit for directions. What makes the product interesting is the potential to use a kind of heads-up-display experience in all vehicles, not just brand new luxury cars. Given that Americans are keeping their cars longer than ever, this could be a solution for a much broader segment of the population. 

Lavrinc also speculates that drivers could plug a Bluetooth attachment into most cars’ on-board diagnostics port to give their Google Glass unit a readout of their speed,  revolutions per minute, temperature, and oil pressure. These instruments are already on  the dash but integrating them into line of sight could allow drivers to keep their  eyes on the road.  But developers for Google Glass will have to walk a fine line between providing information directly to the user and cluttering the driver’s field of vision as to risk distraction. It is possible to make driving safer or significantly more dangerous with this kind of technology. It comes down to designing a user experience that recognizes how humans will interact with the technology and mold that interaction, focusing the driver’s attention to the road and minimizing the distractions that cellphones currently present.

This element of potential distraction led lawmakers in West Virginia and Delaware to propose bills banning the use of wearable computers while driving.  In many states the use of Google Glass while driving would likely fall under existing laws governing “hands-free devices.” It is important to note that these bills were proposed before the technology was available for the general public. While a release date has not been announced, many in the tech industry expect the device to be available in 2014. Both bills failed but distracted driving has taken center stage in the policy agenda and the bills will likely be revived in  future legislative sessions while spreading to other states as the technology becomes more widely available.

Lawmakers are trying to get ahead of a potential risk. This policy push is a laudable goal given that the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) reports that more than 3000 people died in distracted driving-related accidents in 2011. This technology could make driving safer, but that benefit could be lost if the product is prematurely banned. It is important that this technology receives ample study from agencies such as NHSTA to discover  how it impacts driver behavior.  State officials around the country will want to take that information into account when debating how to address this technology in public policy.