Government wants more control over transportation apps

Transportation Department is asking for ability to change apps that distract drivers

Technology trends and news by Steven Loeb
June 16, 2014
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If you are a loyal reader of this site (and I hope that many of you are!) you may have noticed that I was missing all last week. That is because I was on vacation, spending a week in Texas. Since I don't have a car, I wound up taking a lot of Uber rides to get around, and there is one thing I noticed right away: almost every single driver, except for maybe one, used Google Maps, or at least some transportation app, to get me to my destination.

These types of apps become ubiquitous. Just about everyone rely on them now, and soon they are going to actually come imbedded in our cars.

As often happens when a new type of technology pops up, though, the government comes sniffing around, looking for some authority to regulate it. Now, that is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does happen every single time.

So, now the Transportation Department is asking Congress to give it authority to have greater control over all navigation aids of all types, which would include smartphone apps, according to a report out from the New York Times on Sunday.

The language allowing for the greater regulations would appear in the GROW AMERICA Act, which stands for Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency, and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America. The bill aims to shore up America's rapidly aging infrastructure and, of course, to create jobs.

Just to be clear, under the proposal, Google would not have to come to the government to ask their permission to roll out some new feature. However, it would allow the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set restrictions on the apps and to order the company to change the apps if it is deemed to be somehow a danger to others on the road.

According to the Times, automakers are already supporting the measure, but tech companies are resisting, calling such a proposal ineffective and essentially accusing the government of trying to look like they are doing something rather than actually doing something worthwhile. 

The report, however, did not name which companies were opposing it.

One company that would obviously be heavily affected would be Google. Not only does the company run the popular Google Maps app, last year it made a big purchase in Israeli social traffic app Waze. 

Waze, which was founded in 2007, is a navigation app with a crowd-sourcing twist: it encourages drivers to get into their cars and share driving conditions and experiences with other members of the online community. In return, Waze provides real-time information on the circulation and short cuts, while making suggestions for stops along the way.

Both apps are typically used in the car, and often while a person is driving. While Waze does try to dissuade its users from texting while operating their vehicle, there is no way it can prevent them from doing so.

VatorNews has reached out to Google for a comment on the proposal, but the company was not available for comment. Looking at its history, though, it seems likely that Google would not be in favor of such regulations.

It was reported earlier this year that the company was actually lobbying against laws in at least three states that would prohibit drivers from wearing Glass while behind the wheel. While eight states have at least considered regulating the device, Google is so far attempting to persuade officials in Illinois, Delaware and Missouri that such laws are not necessary.

As I said when I reported on those efforts by Google, I am all for regulating technology inside of moving cars. I have been in numerous accidents caused by distracted driving, and I think that asking for regulations over what tech companies can and cannot put in front of a driver's face while they are operating a vehicle is not unreasonable.

This is all in its early stages right now. The Transportation Department does not even have any immediate plans for any new rules it wants to issue. Rather, there will likely be a glut of proposals that Congress will have to work on whether or not they want to include in the bill, which should be voted on in the next few months.

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