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iTECH: Another Kind of Cell Block
Monday, 28 December 2009 00:00
Suppliers Unveil Technology That Locks Down Mobile Handsets in Moving Vehicles

A person trying to chat or read and send text messages while driving could find his cell phone disabled, thanks to technology coming into the market.

Applications for commercial drivers are part of the mix of new products that address what many are saying is a rising safety issue: distracted driving. If people won‘t voluntarily avoid using handsets while operating a motor vehicle, there are ways to render cellular connections inoperable, or at least report the driver‘s activities to management.

The new technology was the focus of a Nov. 24 Federal Communications Commission forum with suppliers, regulators and others.

The basic functions are largely the same: When movement is detected by cell phones and other personal communication devices, outgoing text-messaging is shut down and incoming text and voice messages are saved until the motion has stopped. To prevent drivers from typing anyway, keypads are locked.

The Global Positioning System, accelerometers and Wi-Fi transceivers are among the technologies present in many smart phones that makes motion-tracking possible, John Geyer, vice president of business development for Aegis Mobility, Vancouver, British Columbia, told iTECH.

Voice calls also may be restricted. Certain programs direct inbound calls to voice mail or greet them with a message informing callers that the subscriber is driving and cannot accept calls.

None of the systems blocks outbound 911 emergency calls, and most of the programs can be tailored to permit at least some inbound calls.

Illume Software, Concord, Mass., permits calls from selected numbers on its IZUP ("eyes up") program. And Aegis‘s DriveAssist sends an audio alert when messages from selected contacts arrive.

In some cases, hands-free calling is an option. ZoomSafer, Reston, Va., automatically sets certain handsets‘ "convenience key" so drivers can quickly launch hands-free calling before hitting the road, said Chief Executive Officer and founder Matthew Howard.

"We don‘t want you to take your hands off the wheel," he said. "We don‘t want you touching the device, or even looking at it."

Once a handset‘s GPS detects motion in excess of 10 miles per hour, ZoomSafer automatically launches. The baseline settings prohibit outbound text and e-mail, and cannot be altered.

However, settings that allow for hands-free voice communications can be changed.

"We embrace voice," Howard said, but only in situations where it is "safe and legal" to carry on conversations.

He also said that while the hands-free capability can provide "a measure of productivity," if a company wants to block conversations whenever a truck is in motion—or if local laws prohibit all conversations in moving vehicles—ZoomSafer can completely lock down the device.

"This is a policy application," he said, and can be configured to determine "what the driver can and cannot do." The customizable program offers both owner-operators and fleets "an opportunity to manage risk and liability."

In addition, the company offers a service that can record and report usage habits, giving fleets the ability to monitor and review drivers‘ communications patterns.

Howard was quick to point out that extrapolating meaning from the data is up to the subscriber. "We‘re not the moral authority in this equation, or Big Brother, and we don‘t want to be," he said.

Drivers who are hoping to evade the programs‘ scrutiny face hurdles.

Key2SafeDriving, sold by Safe Driving Systems, South Jordan, Utah, can be configured to notify an administrator of attempts to disable or bypass the program. And while Drive Safely Corp., Rochester, N.Y., and Aegis‘ programs both ask users if they are driving—if a "yes" response is entered, the device shuts down—the programs handle "no" answers—which allow users to move forward—differently.

DriveAssist blocks incoming text and voice communications for users who log in as a driver, but it features an override when users log in as passengers.

Aegis Chief Executive Officer Bill Stack acknowledged that drivers could beat the system with this option, but he said that because voice and data traffic is monitored, fleet managers easily can determine if a driver is punching a keypad when he should have both hands on the wheel.

"All activity is logged, and could be routed to a compliance manager," Stack said.

There is no way for users to specifically disable Drive Safely‘s three anti-messaging technologies—one each for sending text, e-mail and multimedia—but a series of approval screens require a level of dexterity and attention that drivers should not be able to overcome, Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Schaeffer said.

The first screen asks if the user is driving. A "yes" answer automatically disables text capabilities. A "no" answer launches an "attention validation sequence," during which randomly assigned letters, numbers and symbols must be entered within seconds in order to continue.

As a follow-up, the system will randomly launch additional sequences to ensure that the subscribers‘ attention is not focused elsewhere.

Although Drive Safely products do not completely disable texting, Schaeffer said that the validation sequences and time limits make entry from the driver‘s seat extremely prohibitive.

If any of the sequences are not entered properly, the handset‘s messaging capability is shut down.

While the programs are still in their infancy, there already is debate over which technical framework— network- or phone-based—is best.

Schaeffer said the Drive Safely technology, designed to embed directly with carrier networks, is compatible with all phones and networks, which he proclaimed as an advantage over technologies that must be downloaded to phones.

However, the hurdle of weaving a technology into existing infrastructure is not insignificant, said Aegis‘ Stack, noting that regulatory and developmental delays could slow introduction of a network-based—or "mediated," in the industry parlance—platforms.

"There has to be a way to work within the existing construct of the network," he said. "Wireless networks and handsets are similar but require customization." He cited cost and additional demand placed on networks working to keep pace with the increasing digital traffic as an advantage that phone-based applications could have over network setups.

"We can‘t cause the carriers to reengineer their entire network to do this," he said.

Despite these hurdles, Aegis has been working on a mediated product that should be ready for demonstration early next year, Geyer said.

Regardless of framework, Stack said there is no time to wait for ongoing government efforts now under way to address distracted driving.

"Laws, mandates and policies cannot force compliance," he said. "We can pass all the laws we want. If we wait until the accident happens, it‘s too late."

He also said more driver restraint would help.

"Subscribers have the ultimate control—they have the [handset‘s] on-off button, and they can use it," he said. "But people are not going to do that."

Transport Topics, 12/28/2009