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Department of Transportation Aims to Regulate GPS/Map Apps in Vehicles

TMCnet Feature

June 17, 2014

Department of Transportation Aims to Regulate GPS/Map Apps in Vehicles

By Daniel Brecht
Contributing Writer

We all come to rely on apps that give turn-by-turn navigation and voice directions; several consumer devices, including smartphones, can capture GPS signals to help guide users to destinations, show nearby points of interest, or provide current location in real-time. They come handy when on foot and travelling to remote or unfamiliar locations while driving. For the latter, often, users have GPS car kits that feature a built-in GPS receiver that allows a smartphone with location-based apps to receive directions while docked. This offers a hands-free GPS navigation experience that can be safe as well as convenient.

However, federal regulators are trying (probably vainly) to keep up with a rapidly changing auto industry and are going public about concerns on GPS/mapping apps on smartphones; they believe they are becoming a problem similar to typing/reading SMS messages while driving. Navigation aids like Google (News - Alert) Maps or Waze, for instance, could be distracting for a driver that uses them for direction finding or course plotting while the car is in motion. The law clearly forbids using a phone while driving unless the device is being used in a hands-free manner; and new directives might now regulate the use of phones for mapping purposes.

The question has come up about whether or not the U.S. Department of Transportation should seek explicit authority from Congress to regulate navigation aids of all types, including apps on smartphones that could distract drivers, specifically while driving. According to a recent post titled “Agency Aims to Regulate Map Aids in Vehicles,” by The New York Times, navigation aids available in some cars and smartphone GPS apps are dangerous and lead to distracted driving, just like texting.

Navigation solutions that are not hands-free should be as illegal as texting while driving. Nonetheless, the question is how to regulate apps and enforce new regulations. Will legislators enforce rules for automakers and apps developers to comply with before releasing their products?

Many GPS/maps apps now face government oversight. In fact, the regulation of vehicle positioning and navigation for increased safety, mobility, and efficiency in transportation systems are all measures included in the Obama administration’s proposed transportation bill. With the GROW AMERICA Act proposed transportation bill, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has the authority to set restrictions on the apps and later order changes if they are deemed dangerous.

As The New York Times reports, automakers agree that phones should not be used while cars are moving; they “support the initiative and seem ready to comply, while tech companies are unsurprisingly opposed and say that NHTSA can't possibly review every app in an authoritative and productive way.” Today, the legality of looking at a digital map while driving remains unclear. Some navigation apps already present have disclaimers that discourage consumers from using them while driving. Regulators ask drivers only to access such apps while the car is stopped and parked.

Regulators would like to see no gray areas and seek legal authority to regulate phone-based navigation apps, which are proliferating and increasing in sophistication. Rules on electronic distractions could be part of a highway bill that Congress is likely to pass in the coming months. Consumers, in the future, can definitely expect changes in automotive navigation systems and dashboard positioning. Built-in GPS navigation devices will be a suitable (albeit more costly) alternative to smartphones with GPS/mapping function capabilities.

Cars are likely to continue to be more and more connected, but will offer better hands-free technology and compatibility with a growing list of apps that that will change the driving experience. Devices and apps will come available in driver modes that will offer a simplified user interface to avoid dangerous distractions. 

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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