"Car is not a mobile device," NHTSA chief scolds industry

  • 27-Jun-2011 10:00 EDT

“I’m not in the business of helping people Tweet or post on Facebook,” said NHTSA’s Strickland.

Executives in the telematics world often say that the car is the ultimate mobile connectivity device, targeting all kinds of applications and services that will aid and amuse drivers. At least one auto executive has joked that, for those who have radios, cell phones, and other options, driving is the distraction.

Those views don’t sit well with David Strickland, Administrator for the U.S. NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). “I’m putting everyone on notice. The car is not a mobile device; it’s a car. We lose 33,000 people per year in cars, and driver distraction is cited for around 5500 of those deaths,” he said during a speech at the Detroit Telematics 2011 conference this month.

At the show, many speakers discussed plans to give drivers all the connected services they use elsewhere. Strickland feels that will distract drivers.

“I’m not in the business of helping people tweet or post on Facebook," he said. "My job is to make people safer when they’re behind the wheel. We will not take a back seat while telematics is evolving. There’s too much risk.”

Not all those efforts will aim at reducing distractions that may come with telematics. Strickland said NHTSA and the U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation) are willing to help the industry bring many telematics services to drivers. Features like navigation, crash notification, and other services that will prevent accidents and loss of life represent the positive side of telematics, he said.

Vendors will be encouraged in those developments, but many of the services proposed by telematics proponents were clearly not in any portion of his road map. A big part of his focus on safety will be to ensure that when drivers are connected, they remain focused on driving. Consumers will want the latest technologies, and will bring mobile devices into the vehicle if automotive systems don’t match the speeds and functions of their mobile devices. He called that possibility “troubling.”

“”We plan to use all the resources we have available to deal with driver distraction,” Strickland said.

He outlined a four-pronged approach to meet this goal. One is to improve NHTSA’s understanding of the issues, which is important for the data-driven agency. Those will help in the development of a voluntary guideline that will address driver workloads.

The agency will also examine a number of technologies that can help keep drivers safe, which may go outside the telematics services he focused on for most of his speech. The final focus is increased public awareness of the consequences of distracted driving.

Strickland mentioned several potential solutions for the challenges faced by the telematics industry and safety regulators. One is to disable many functions when the vehicle is moving. Another is to employ telematics to use data from vehicle networks to help determine the severity of crashes to predict the severity of injuries and relay that information to first responders.

Strickland also touched on vehicle-to-vehicle communications. He noted that, after many trials, NHTSA is set to make a decision on a possible rollout in 2013. That will be the starting point of the next phase.

“I feel we will go forward. I don’t want any more five-year trials; there have been too many already,” he said.

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