Obama Admin. Aims to Regulate Map Aids in Vehicles
Agency Aims to Regulate Map Aids in Vehicles
By MATTHEW L. WALDJUNE 15, 2014
Getting directions on the road from Google Maps and other smartphone apps is a popular alternative to the expensive navigation aids included in some cars. The apps are also a gray area when it comes to laws banning the use of cellphones or texting while driving.
The Transportation Department wants to enter the argument.
The department is intensifying its battle against distracted driving by seeking explicit authority from Congress to regulate navigation aids of all types, including apps on smartphones.
The measure, included in the Obama administration’s proposed transportation bill, would specify that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the authority to set restrictions on the apps and later order changes if they are deemed dangerous, much the way it currently regulates mechanical features of cars.
The measure has the support of automakers, which already mostly comply with voluntary guidelines for built-in navigation systems, but it has run into stiff opposition from technology companies, which say that any such law would be impractical and impossible to enforce. It’s another example, they say, of federal regulators trying vainly to keep up with a rapidly changing industry.
“They don’t have enough software engineers,” said Catherine McCullough, executive director of the Intelligent Car Coalition, an industry group. “They don’t have the budget or the structure to oversee both Silicon Valley and the auto industry.”
The underlying issue has already worked its way into the courts. In California, Steven R. Spriggs received a $165 ticket two years ago for using his iPhone while driving in stop-and-go traffic near Fresno. A highway patrol motorcycle officer rolled up alongside his car after seeing the glow from the screen on Mr. Spriggs’s face.
“I held it up and said, ‘It’s a map,’ ” Mr. Spriggs said. He was not talking on the phone, which is prohibited by California law.
But the police officer would not budge. “He said, ‘Pull over, it doesn’t matter,’ ” said Mr. Spriggs, the director of planned giving at California State University, Fresno.
An appeals court ruled this year that it did matter, and Mr. Spriggs’s conviction was reversed.
Regulators maintain that they already have the authority over navigation aids and merely want it clearly written into law.
Twice last year, David L. Strickland, when he was administrator of N.H.T.S.A., told Congress that navigation systems could be “classified as motor vehicle equipment.” The electronics industry, in response, argues that “motor vehicle equipment” includes objects like key-chain fobs that can unlock a car by remote control, not apps on a smartphone.
Last year, after negotiations with the industry, the Transportation Department released voluntary guidelines for automakers stipulating that any navigation system should not take more than two seconds for a single interaction, and 12 seconds total. At 60 miles an hour, two seconds is 176 feet.
Now the Transportation Department is angling for more leverage in negotiations over electronic distractions, but it says it has no immediate plan to issue rules. The idea is now in the mix of proposals that could end up in the highway bill that Congress is likely to pass in the coming months.
Regulators are making the push as navigation apps are proliferating and increasing in sophistication.
While most smartphone users are familiar with straightforward navigation aids like Google Maps, Waze, for instance, relies on a social network of users to report road conditions, hazards and the presence of police cars in real time. Wazers, as users are known, earn points the more they contribute, and gain status in the community.
But Waze’s user agreement contains a warning that says, in part, “Sending traffic updates and text messages to the service while you drive is strictly prohibited.” And the app’s interface is meant to prevent a report while the car is in motion, unless the user hits a button saying a passenger is making the entry.
Despite the warning, there is nothing to prevent a driver from hitting the passenger button. Waze, which Google bought last year, declined to comment.
Safety advocates say regulators need to do more.
“We absolutely need to be looking at these nomadic devices,” said Deborah A. P. Hersman, president of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit group chartered by Congress, and a former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The dominant companies in the industry are Google and Apple, which have made maps a central part of their smartphones — not only for navigation but also as a way to gather data and contextual information for their search functions and apps. Google and Apple declined to comment.
The technology industry has also voiced concern that the provision could give regulators the authority to review apps and order changes before they are put on the market, but safety officials said they would not have that power. Instead, they would retain the authority to have an app changed if it was deemed dangerous, in the same way they regulate cars and light trucks.
Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group, said the navigation apps were not inherently dangerous. Being able to enter a new destination into a navigation device on the fly, he said, is “a pretty good thing” and could often be done by a passenger. And navigation apps allow for voice commands.
With Google Maps or Apple’s Maps on nearly every smartphone sold in the United States, he asked, “Does their regulatory status change in a car? How the heck would anyone monitor that?”
The highway agency is following a plan to focus first on electronics built into the dashboard, which it began last year with the voluntary guidelines, and now to focus on smartphones and tablets, which can be used virtually anywhere. Regulators convened a public meeting on those this year, before the administration came out with its version of a transportation appropriations bill.
Without a consistent standard across all navigation aids, automakers and safety advocates say, people will turn to the hand-held devices.
“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, an industry trade group. “We believe that if you’re looking at a smaller screen, that’s less effective than looking at a larger screen on the dashboard.”
Even Mr. Spriggs would agree that driver distraction is a pressing problem. His 22-year-old son, he said, was riding his bicycle and was struck by a car whose driver was on a cellphone.
“I would support a law, reluctantly, that these things cannot work while the car is moving,” he said.
A version of this article appears in print on June 16, 2014, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Agency Aims to Regulate Map Aids in Vehicles.