Keeping the Distracted Driver in Mind when Developing In-Car Apps

January 28, 2013 Jasjeet Singh

According to ABI Research, the number of connected cars is expected to reach 60% globally by 2017. Add to that the number of drivers who take their devices in their cars and nearly every vehicle has a mobile connection. This extreme rate of growth is opening multiple opportunities within the in-car app ecosystem.

With this comes a huge responsibility for app developers. The phone is not shoved into the glove box and the tablet is not tucked neatly into a carrying case, it’s in a cup holder and on the passenger seat. Unlike a traveller taking off or landing in an airplane, their device is on while they are in the driver’s seat and most likely connected to a cellular network. It is for this very reason that today’s mobile application developers need to fully understand the guidelines of human machine interface (HMI) as they relate to the distracted driver.

The use cases will only grow from here. Whether they realize it or not, the auto industry is the driving force behind propelling associated industries into the connected space. Current and future examples of this include:

  1. Auto mechanics can track diagnostics wirelessly and send push notifications for oil changes and other preventative maintenance services.
  2. Gas and charging stations can use a driver’s location and maximum spending preference to route prospective customers to their stores.
  3. More parking garages will have price and availability data, and offer deals to certain car brands.
  4. Street parking will display the available spots on a device’s maps provider, much the way traffic does today.

All this will need to be blended within a user experience where the driver can use one finger and keep the other hand securely on the steering wheel.

It is essential that the entire development team become experts in HMI principles to reduce driver distraction. As per the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), some of these principles include:

  1. Background and text colors should contrast as well as shine through glare and reflection.
  2. Characters and iconography need to be large and simple enough to understand in order to be consumed by brief sequential glances.
  3. Critical data (e.g., maps) must be accurate to avoid confusion or frustration.
  4. Information must be delivered in a timely manner; a loading spinner kept on the screen too long could be enough to irritate the calmest motorist.
  5. Actions not permitted while driving must be disabled and clearly separated from those allowed.
  6. Precise instructions for using the application safely must be easy to access.

These guidelines are just the basics: NHTSA maintains a working document that includes everything from visuals to application interaction to complex mathematical formulas for device placement within the vehicle.

What’s at stake here is the safety of every driver and passenger on the road today. An average of 6 million car crashes happen every year in the United States., the official US government website for distracted driving, reports that drivers are 23 times more likely to get into an accident while texting. Numerous studies have found that texting is more likely to cause an accident than drunk driving. These dangers could open the door for increased government laws and regulations.

The number of lawsuits could also spike dramatically. In May 2012, a Texas jury awarded $21 million dollars in damages to a woman struck by a Coca-Cola truck where the driver was talking on his cell phone. It found the company at fault, contending that Coca-Cola did not properly educate the driver about the dangers of using a mobile device while driving. What does this mean for app developers building applications to be used while driving? If the number of distracted driver cases continues to increase, there could be a tsunami of public regulation and private litigation.

To combat the challenges of distracted driving, voice technology is becoming more prevalent as part of in-car apps. Both text to speech and voice recognition help lower manual and visual distraction levels and can dramatically reduce cognitive distraction. If taking a phone call via Bluetooth was Connected Driver 1.0, then the emergence of voice to reduce visual dependencies and controlling user interaction is 2.0. The challenge now is not only further innovating on these concepts, but also providing the user with the appropriate haptic feedback to voice interaction.

Auto manufacturers have already started opening up their connected car platforms to third-party developers, but are they targeting the right type of professional? Today’s in-car app developers need to be Mobile Telematics Application Engineers (MTAE) in order to meet the challenges of building for the smallest of screens. MTAEs need to focus on building in-car apps according to best practices, so as to avoid creating problems on our roads of tomorrow.

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