How Smartphones Could Make Driving Safer

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Man Falls Asleep At The Wheel. 1962.
972_05_W278276 Photo: EyeOn/Getty Images

Smartphones are kind of dangerous in cars. But as a handful of developers are proving, they don’t have to be. Smartphones can help detect dangerous driving, prevent bad decisions, and even sense when things have gone horribly wrong, all without active intervention. The distant future of driving might be in autonomous vehicles, but the near future, whether you drive a 2015 S-Class or a 1987 Cutlass Ciera, is a smart car made that way by your phone.

San Francisco–based Zendrive is a leader in phone-based car technology with backers including Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and BMW’s investment arm. Today, the company launched Zendrive Accident Detection, a service that taps a smartphone’s internal sensors to detect crashes and alert emergency services. The company claims its technology can differentiate between hard braking, phone drops, and accidents with 100 percent accuracy, achieved after many collisions in BMW’s crash-test facilities.

Zendrive has released its work as a software development kit, in hopes that developers in the car-related app space will include it in their own products. CrashSense, a Tampa, Florida, company that works with the car insurance industry, announced a similar product last year for insurance companies to integrate into their apps. In newer cars, this kind of technology is often built in; what Zendrive and CrashSense promise is the ability to take that crash-sensing technology with you to any car.

Better than detecting crashes, though, is preventing them. The most common approach: apps meant to prevent drivers from using their phones while driving. Some detect the speed a phone is moving and block texts, apps, and calls whenever that speed passes 10 mph. Others will read texts and emails aloud so that the driver won't try to look at it. DriveScribe also monitors the driver's attention to traffic laws and watches for hard braking. Obeying the rules of the road results in points, which subscribers can exchange for gift cards.

The benefit of these anti-distraction apps is that they’ll shut down your phone while you’re driving, preventing you from breaking the rules even if you wanted to. Breathalyzer apps, though, only offer guidance. These apps, like Beathometer and Alcohoot, along with the devices you plug into your smartphone’s audio jack, can simply tell you if you’re too drunk to drive. Whether or not you get behind the wheel is up to you.

The next frontier of smartphone-assisted safe driving is your phone watching to see if you’re too sleepy to be behind the wheel. In 2012, a Dartmouth professor developed an app called CarSafe — when a phone is mounted on a dashboard, the app uses both the rear and front-facing cameras to watch the driver and the road. It monitors signs of drowsiness in the driver, such as the length of a blink. On the road, the app monitors driving conditions, along with the distance from the car ahead. Somnoalert, announced in 2013, is a more targeted app, designed solely to sense a driver’s sleepiness by telltale movements, including jerks back into the driving lane and a nodding head. Neither of these apps seems to have come to the market, or if they have, they’re not easy to find, suggesting implementation was more difficult than conception. But the attention they received should be a clue to other developers out there — there’s a market for letting people know when they’re asleep at the wheel.