All Tech Considered
4:16 pm
Mon March 24, 2014

Does Google Glass Distract Drivers? The Debate Is On

Originally published on Tue March 25, 2014 4:54 pm

Shane Walker hops into his Toyota Prius hybrid and puts on his Google Glass. It's a lightweight glasses frame with a tiny computer built into the lens.

Google is at the forefront of a movement in wearable technology, gadgets we put on our bodies to connect us to the Internet, and perhaps nothing embodies that more than Glass. But the eyewear is raising eyebrows outside the high-tech industry. Before Glass even hits stores, lawmakers in several states want to ban it on the roads.

Walker, an independent developer living in San Francisco, turns on the GPS app and starts driving. Instead of talking out loud, like an app on a smartphone might, it shows him his route as a thin blue line and a triangle on the upper right corner of the lens.

"Google did a good job of making it nonintrusive, so it's not directly in your line of sight," he says.

But Walker's favorite feature is the camera. Say you're on a road trip. With a tap of the side, you can record the entire thing in decent resolution and then, with another tap, share it with your friends. Or you can wink and take a picture.

At a stop sign, Walker strokes the Glass frame with his right index finger. He's flipping through stored photos. The movement is so discreet — no bending his neck down like you would with a smartphone — and I have to ask him: "Is it something you would do if there was a police officer right in front of you?"

"I mean, it's debatable," he replies. "It is hands-free, so I do feel like in my legal right, it's OK for me to interact with stuff that doesn't require my hands, like winking, taking pictures."

Legislative Battle Over Public Safety

Ira Silverstein, a Democratic state senator from Illinois, disagrees. "Yeah, it's hands-free, but it can affect your vision," he says.

He's written a bill that says using Glass distracts drivers. "The first offense would be a misdemeanor. The second offense if, God forbid causes death, could be a felony."

Leading car insurance companies have not yet taken a position on Glass, but at least eight states have proposed legislation banning the use of Google Glass on the road. In West Virginia, Republican state Delegate Gary Howell says lawmakers need to act before Glass gets out of hand.

Glass is the ultimate multitasking machine. It streams incoming emails and scans the human eyelid for commands. But Howell says its high-tech creators aren't seeing a basic fact about the real world.

"Have they driven on mountain roads in West Virginia, where you've got one 15-mile-an-hour turn after another one, where you really need to be concentrating on what you're doing?" he says. "You could be wearing it, not looking at your driving but watching a video screen."

Google is responding to this roadblock by sending lobbyists around the country to dispel concerns. Spokesman Chris Dale says Glass can help drivers.

"It's actually not distracting, and it allows you — rather than looking down at your phone, you're looking up and you're engaging with the world around you," Dale says. "It was specifically designed to do that: to get you the technology you need, just when you need it, but then to get out of your way."

Not Texting, But Text

Back in Walker's car, Glass does something that a smartphone can't do. We turn a corner past a golden fire hydrant, and obscure facts suddenly start streaming in front of Walker's iris.

"When San Francisco burst into flames in the days following the disastrous 1906 earthquake, much of the city's network of fire hydrants failed," Walker reads. "Miraculously, this fire hydrant, nicknamed 'The Little Giant,' is said to have been the only functional ..." He goes on reading like this for about half a minute.

"Are you reading all of that from the upper right-hand corner of your eye?" I ask.

"Yeah," he says. "It's pretty cool. It's like text just floating in air."

Walker has a theory about why the text is not distracting him: "The layer is transparent, so your eye does a good job of seeing through it while also staring at it."

Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT who specializes in multitasking, says this sounds like wishful thinking.

"You think you're monitoring the road at the same time, when actually what you're doing [is] you're relying on your brain's prediction that nothing was there before, half a second ago — that nothing is there now," he says. "But that's an illusion. It can often lead to disastrous results."

In other words, the brain fills in the gaps in what you see with memories of what you saw a half-second ago. Among scientists, that statement is not controversial. The politics of Google Glass — and where it's worn — clearly is.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now, from the culture of tech innovation to the way new tech is received in the culture. Google is trying to sell the world on its wearable computer, Google Glass. Like a pair of glasses, it sits on the nose with a tiny computer built into the lens. It is still in the beta stages. The company has given out a limited number so far. And outside of high-tech, the eyewear is raising eyebrows. Lawmakers in several states want to ban it on the roads.

Here's Aarti Shahani from member station KQED.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Before we turn to the laws, let's hit the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE DOOR)

SHAHANI: Shane Walker hops into his Prius hybrid and puts on his Google Glass.

SHANE WALKER: I'm just going to have us go home really quickly. So I'm going to go check on my dog.

SHAHANI: Walker is an independent developer who got Glass last year to play with it and build apps. He turns on the GPS and it doesn't start talking to him like maps on a Smartphone might. Instead, it shows him his route as a thin blue line and a triangle on the upper right-hand corner of the lens.

WALKER: Google did a good job of making it non-intrusive, so it's not directly in your line of sight.

SHAHANI: Walker's favorite feature is the camera. Say, you're on a road trip. You can record the entire thing in totally decent resolution and then...

WALKER: You could go and, you know, one click you could share it out to your friends.

SHAHANI: At a stop sign, Walker strokes his frame with his right index finger. He's flipping through stored photos. The movement is so discreet - no bending his neck down like you would with a Smartphone - I have to ask him...

OK, is it something you would do if there was a police officer right in front of you?

WALKER: I mean, it's debatable. So it is hands-free, so I do feel like in my legal right that I'm - it's OK for me to interact with stuff that doesn't require my hands like winking, taking pictures.

STATE SENATOR IRA SILVERSTEIN: Yeah, its hands-free but it can affect your vision.

SHAHANI: Illinois State Senator Ira Silverstein is a Democrat from Chicago, and he's written a bill that says using Glass equals distracted driving.

SILVERSTEIN: The first offense would be a misdemeanor. The second offense, if it causes death, could be a felony.

SHAHANI: Leading car insurance companies have not yet taken a position on Glass. But at least eight states have. Republican State Delegate Gary Howell of West Virginia says lawmakers need to act before Glass gets out of hand.

STATE DELEGATE GARY HOWELL: You could be wearing it, driving down a road, not looking at your driving but watching a video screen or reading text and watching cat videos.

SHAHANI: Glass is the ultimate multi-tasking machine. It streams incoming emails and scans the eyelid for blinking commands. But Delegate Howell says its high-tech creators aren't seeing a basic fact about the real world.

HOWELL: Have they driven on mountain roads in West Virginia where, you know, you've got one 15-mile-an-hour turn after another one, where you really need to be concentrating on what you're doing?

SHAHANI: Google is responding to this roadblock by sending lobbyists across the country to dispel concerns. Spokesman Chris Dale says Glass can help drivers.

CHRIS DALE: It's actually not distracting and it allows you rather than looking down at your phone, you're looking up and you're engaging with the world around you. And it was specifically designed to do that, to get you the technology you need just when you need it, but then to get out of your way.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)

SHAHANI: Back in Shane Walker's car, Glass does something that a Smartphone can't do. We turn a corner past a golden fire hydrant. And suddenly, obscure facts start streaming in front of Walker's iris.

WALKER: When San Francisco burst into flames in the days following the disastrous 1906 earthquake, much of the city's network of fire hydrants failed. Miraculously, this fire hydrant, nicknamed the Little Giant...

SHAHANI: And he goes on reading like this for about a half a minute.

WALKER: ...historic Mission District neighborhood.

SHAHANI: Are you reading all of that from the upper right hand corner of your eye?

WALKER: Exactly, yeah. It's pretty cool. It's like text just floating in air.

SHAHANI: Walker has a theory about why this text is not distracting him.

WALKER: The layer is transparent. So your eye does a good job of seeing through it while also staring at it.

EARL MILLER: That sounds like a lot of wishful thinking to me.

SHAHANI: Earl Miller is a professor or neuroscience at MIT who specializes in multi-tasking.

MILLER: You think you're monitoring the road at the same time, when actually what you're doing, you're relying on your brain's prediction that nothing was there before half a second ago, so nothing is going to be there now. But that's an illusion that can often lead to disastrous results.

SHAHANI: The brain fills in the gaps in what you see with memories of what you saw half a second ago. Among scientists, that statement is not controversial. The politics of Google Glass and where it's worn clearly is.

For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.