Dear DOT: Let innovators innovate

As part of the administration’s recently introduced transportation bill in the House, the Department of Transportation (DOT) offered language proposing that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should have the authority to regulate apps and other products that can be brought into vehicles. 

NHTSA believes it should be able to “prescribe design” of apps and other connected car technology.  But instead of making apps used in cars safer, NHTSA’s pioneering government involvement in app design may make safety challenges worse, not better.

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Building a great smartphone app requires strong technical skills, creative design, patience and persistence.  The end goal is a product that provides clear value to the user and is easy-to-use, intuitive and viral (easy to recommend). 

There is no recipe that guarantees success.  Oftentimes, the features that make an app great are borne out of trial and error.  By extending its jurisdiction to prescribe the design of automotive smartphone apps, NHTSA could inadvertently put a damper on the creativity and innovation that is critical to the success of the app ecosystem today.

But it is not as if, lacking the ability to prescribe design from Washington, NHTSA would have no role to play in the automotive app ecosystem. 

Let’s look at the example of distracted driving, which is high on the list of NHTSA priorities.  In 2014, NHTSA has a $50 million budget to be used for efforts to combat distracted driving, most of which was spent to promote legislation, enforcement and education. 

Many distracted driving laws have been enacted in the states as a result of efforts by NHTSA and state traffic safety agencies.  Similarly, NHTSA’s grants have been used by the states to fund campaigns for distracted driving enforcement.  Finally, NHTSA has also provided grants to numerous non-profit agencies and even a recent TV ad to help raise public awareness of the problem.

Just like investing in the stock market, it’s wise for NHTSA to take a portfolio approach to solving distracted driving.  But controlling the ecosystem by prescribing app design is overreaching. 

As others have pointed out, NHTSA’s desire to regulate automotive apps would stifle innovation due to the increased cost and slower time to market associated with regulatory approval.  The fact is that NHTSA (or any governmental agency, for that matter) is not equipped to move quickly enough to keep up with the pace of innovation that is typically seen with smartphone app development.

Instead of trying to control tech’s initiative, NHTSA should nurture, guide and promote the app developer ecosystem so that we get to solutions sooner rather than later.  For example, NHTSA has hosted a series of public meetings to bring together voices from different sectors to discuss technical issues regarding the agency’s development of driver distraction guidelines for devices. 

This discussion promotes cross-industry collaboration, and NHTSA should continue to serve in this valuable quarterbacking role.  Rather than dictating how solutions should work, NHTSA should use its current authority to help nurture a thriving ecosystem of app developers that are striving to solve similar problems from different angles.  By encouraging this ecosystem to thrive by enabling communication and education, there’s a higher likelihood that one or more of these approaches gain traction, thereby deploying multiple solutions in the fight against distracted driving. .

 Finally, NHTSA should help drive public awareness that there are app solutions available here and now.  Although app solutions have been around for a few years, most people are unaware that these solutions exist. 

For example, solutions like our LifeSaver app offer a low-cost, no-hardware solution, which can help deter distraction.  We take away a temptation by automatically locking the phone of someone who has chosen to install the app when the car starts driving and unlocking it when the vehicle comes to a stop.  The app also provides for parental monitoring and rewards drivers to encourage them to stop fiddling with phones in the car – helping solve a problem for the most vulnerable demographic of distracted drivers -- teenagers.

Until connected car technologies and other potential long-term solutions such as driverless cars become commonplace on American roadways, our best hope to slow down the growth of the distracted driving epidemic is to let the public know that app solutions exist here and now, and to help the app developer ecosystem continue to evolve in making these solutions better.  NHTSA can play a real and meaningful role in both of these areas – without any change to its current authority.

Chen is the co-founder of LifeSaver app, a tool used in cars to automatically lock a smartphone when the vehicle is in motion, and unlocks it when the vehicle comes to a stop.