Google puts phones on lockdown
New tech will help cut down distracted driving
In the age of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, Google's new in-car interface for Android smartphones relies on a vestige of 20th century technology: a plastic USB cable.
This physical link between smartphone and car might seem like a step back from the cutting edge. But it's actually a sign of the new strategy that smartphone and car companies are employing to combat distracted driving.
Governments have mainly tried to fight distracted driving with laws banning handset use or texting in the car -- laws that are widely flouted. Google and its partners from the auto industry are taking an approach that's more carrot than stick.
That's where the hard-wired connection comes in: With the phone leashed to the center console, the car not only takes control of the phone's functions, it effectively grabs the phone out of the driver's hands by locking the screen.
"This isn't going to take care of 100 percent of the ability to be distracted," said David Strickland, who was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration until January. "If people are going to make an unsafe decision, they're going to make an unsafe decision. But if you offer music, messaging and information services through the vehicle safely, you've created an environment where people will be willing to plug in their phone and not be so distracted."
Android Auto, unveiled last week at Google's annual developer conference in San Francisco, is the first product of the Open Automotive Alliance, a consortium that includes Audi, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Google and chipmaker NVIDIA Corp.
Google signaled at the conference that it's trying to find a sweet spot, offering just enough features to persuade drivers to set aside their phones, but not so many that it creates a dangerous new distraction. "Even though it's unsafe, and in many cases illegal, people use their phones while driving," Patrick Brady, director of engineering for Android, told software developers. "There's got to be a better way."
Android Auto allows drivers to make phone calls, send text messages, navigate with Google Maps and play music from streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify. It mainly uses voice controls, which Strickland said is a wise approach.
NHTSA research suggests that talking on a hands-free cell phone is not particularly risky. The risk mainly lies in handling the phone and looking away from the road.
But voice controls aren't foolproof. Studies have shown drivers can handle only so much of a cognitive workload before their driving suffers.
Google's strategy is shared by archrival Apple Inc., whose new CarPlay interface also requires a phone to be plugged into the car and locked down.
Many automakers plan to offer both CarPlay and Android Auto capability in certain cars to appeal to more car shoppers. About 95 percent of smartphones sold worldwide run on either Android or Apple's iOS operating system.
Hyundai said last week that the 2015 Sonata will offer both CarPlay and Android Auto by the end of 2014. Audi said its first models with Android Auto will go on sale in Europe in 2015 and by early 2016 in the United States.
Mathias Halliger, chief architect of Audi's MMI infotainment system, said Google's auto partners were careful not to give drivers too many distractions.
"From the early moments on, we were very conservative about what we show and how we show it," said Halliger, who helped develop Android Auto from Audi's r&d center in Silicon Valley. "There was always speculation that you'd just see the apps that you have on your phone mirrored on your screen. This is definitely not the case."
Halliger said Audi may eventually use software to figure out when a car is parked and unlock more functions for the driver. But not yet.
"In the early implementation," he said, "we are very strict."
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