The New York Times is reporting that the Obama administration’s proposed transportation bill would give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration explicit authority to regulate in-vehicle navigation aids of all types. The regulations would not just apply to built in navigation systems as the legislation would also give NHTSA authority to regulate smartphone apps when used in a vehicle. While drivers and technology companies might object, the proposals have the endorsement of the major car companies who already comply with the agency’s voluntary guidelines for factory installed nav systems that restrict driver contact with those systems.
Representatives for the tech industry say that the legislation is not workable nor enforceable. “[Regulators] don’t have enough software engineers,” said Catherine McCullough, executive director of the Intelligent Car Coalition, a technology industry trade group. “They don’t have the budget or the structure to oversee both Silicon Valley and the auto industry.”
On its part, NHTSA regulators say that they already have the authority to control in-car navigation aids, which raises the question as to why they want it made statutory law.
Former NHTSA administrator David L. Strickland, has twice testified before Congress with the agency’s position that nav systems, including smartphone nav apps, could be “classified as motor vehicle equipment” like some other electronic car accessories. In response, the electronics industry said that there’s a broad difference between a smart key and a smartphone.
One concern of regulators are smartphone apps that merge navigation information with social networking. Waze, which is owned by Google, uses a network of users to report, in real time, traffic and road conditions, hazards and the location of police cars. The Waze user agreement and the app interface prohibits the sending of messages to their network when the car is in motion, but that can be overridden by indicating that a passenger is entering the data.
Navigation and mapping are important parts of the business plans of large tech companies like Apple and Google. Both of those companies use data and contextual information gathered from users to augment search functions and other applications.
Tech companies have fears that the new legislation would give NHTSA the power to review smartphone apps before they go on sale, but NHTSA claims that in the same way they regulate cars and light trucks, they would have the authority to have an app modified if it was found to be dangerous. Considering all of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard that automakers must meet before they sell a vehicle, the tech companies’ concerns may be well warranted.
Then there is the practical aspect of enforcement. Harold Feld, of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group, asked that with some kind of map application on nearly every smartphone available in the United States, “Does their regulatory status change in a car? How the heck would anyone monitor that?”
Safety advocates and regulators respond that unless there are uniform regulations for all navigation aids used in cars, people will not use the regulated built-in devices and instead use their own hand-held devices, introducing the possibility of distracted driving. That position is supported by the automakers. “If you put restrictions on the built-in systems designed to be used while driving, it’s going to encourage people to use hand-held devices that are not optimal for use by a driver,” said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “We believe that if you’re looking at a smaller screen, that’s less effective than looking at a larger screen on the dashboard.”
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS