by Al Sacco

Thoughts on Driving with Google Glass and Other Smartglasses

Jan 17, 20145 mins
Consumer ElectronicsMobileSmall and Medium Business

Nobody, including Google, wants to say just how safe it is to drive while using smartglasses like Glass, but developers continue to create apps designed specifically for drivers. The issue is a complex one, but's Al Sacco says banning smartglasses in cars outright isn't the answer. Here's why.

I’ve been thinking a lot about wearable technology lately, partly because it was center stage at this month’s 2014 CES, partly because I’ve been using wearables myself during the past few weeks. (I carry a Fitbit Zip with my all the time, and I just got Google Glass.) I’m also working on a story about wearables in the enterprise.

Google Glass Al Sacco

Way back in August, I wrote about a Glass app called INRIX Traffic that’s meant for use while you drive a vehicle. It’s not really a navigation app; it’s designed to provide traffic and accident updates to help you get where you’re going as quickly as possible.

A number of additional Glass apps for drivers also exist, including the native navigation/driving-directions app that’s built in to Glass, and a new app that’s designed to wake you up if you get sleepy behind the wheel.

The problem, as I wrote in August, is that nobody—including Google—wants to say just how safe it is to use Glass while driving. Nobody really knows. The gadget blocks a bit of your peripheral vision on the right side, and its display can certainly be considered a distraction when turned on. But Glass could also be seen as less of a distraction than a smartphone, which lots of people use for navigation these days, because you don’t need your hands to operate it.

In November a Calif. woman was pulled over for wearing Glass while driving. She wasn’t necessarily using Glass, just wearing it. And the California Highway Patrol ticketed her for wearing the gadget based on a Calif. code that specifically bars the use of any video or TV screen in the front of a vehicle while it is moving.

The woman based her defense on the fact that she was not using Glass at the time (which may or may not be true), and yesterday a San Diego court ruled in her favor. But the ruling really isn’t a win for Glass, because it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still illegal to actually use the device while driving in Calif. And the majority of other states have yet to address the issue, because they haven’t had to. The ruling just spotlights the need for more attention on the issue of using smartglasses and other wearables while driving.

Instead of actually examining the issue, which is sure to become even more important in coming years, some states, including Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia have introduced bills that aim to make it illegal to use Glass while driving, according to the Associated Press.

That’s the simplest way to address the issue in the short term. And lots of smart people think that Glass should be banned outright while driving, including blogger James A. Martin—though he may be changing his tune.

But the fact of the matter is that Google Glass is just the tip of the iceberg. There are tons of Glass-like gadgets (GlassUp is just one) and other smartglasses available today, and even more in the works. And developers are specifically creating applications for use while driving, many of which are quite useful. In fact, driving apps are among the most popular types of apps for Google Glass.

Then there are smartglasses like Epson’s Moverio glasses that project a display directly in front of users, which would almost certainly be very dangerous while driving. But there’s currently no official or legal differentiation between these two types of devices.

Shortly after the incident in Calif., Google decided to cover its (Gl)ass by updating the related terms of service to specify that it’s not always safe to use Glass behind the wheel. But it has not come out and said specifically that you shouldn’t ever use Glass while driving, probably in part because it knows that lots of developers are spending time creating driving-related apps.

This issue needs to be addressed sooner than later, and I don’t think banning Glass or other smartglasses outright is the answer, as some lawmakers—who, I might add, have never even seen Glass in person—seem to think. If you’re going to ban Glass navigation apps, why not ban-smartphone based apps, which are often just as distracting?

Personally, I think there is a place for Glass in the car, but today’s driving apps probably aren’t ideal, because many don’t disable other Glass functions, such as notifications, that could distract and reduce the value of the driving apps. Then again, I also don’t want some new teenage driver fiddling with their smartglasses to dismiss a notification or something while blasting by on my street.

It’s going to take some time and effort actually researching the issue before an informed decision can be made, and I think Google should be driving this initiative. (Pun proudly intended.) After all, Google is the company making the most popular, or at least most hyped, smartglasses on the market today. Google and its developers also stand to lose the most if Glass is banned outright while driving.