Posted by: Contributing columnist, Clarion-Ledger, Business, February 10, 2016:
In case you’ve not been paying attention for the last 10 years, distracted driving is a problem that has reached epic proportions on America’s roadways. Sure, there have always been
distractions to drivers. Believe it or not, I used to pass the same commuter reading a book on his steering wheel on I-80 in Ohio at least once a week. Of course, today I would be tempted to pull out my cellphone and take a picture if I saw him, but that’s a perfect illustration of the biggest current distraction to drivers – cellphones.
Even though driving while texting or using social media is against the law in Mississippi, take a look around you on your way to or from work today. More than half of the drivers I see on many roads are on their cellphones. When the light turns green and no one notices, it’s aggravating and bad enough, but many of the people driving down the road are clearly an accident waiting to happen. Distracted driving is particularly dangerous for teen drivers and the statistics show that teens’ driving skills are impaired much more easily and they are much more likely to have an accident from cellphone use than more experienced drivers. Many employers also have liability issues as a result of having “no phone” policies in place, but doing nothing substantive and essentially looking the other way while their employees use their phones anyway.
Innovate Mississippi has worked with many different technology companies seeking to solve the problem — from apps that are supposed to automatically curtail texting and talking to devices that jam cellphone signals when the car is moving. (A cool, but currently illegal, solution.) There are problems with app-based solutions mostly because savvy users — especially teenagers — can usually get around them without too much trouble. I mentioned that jamming signals is illegal per FCC rules, so device solutions have had to try various ways to either tie-up or interfere with phone usage.
Of course one answer is to just turn off the phone or put it in airplane mode. Many people think it’s enough just to set the phone down, but the ping or tone of a text or call is simply too much to resist for nearly everyone, so for responsible drivers, turning the phone off is frankly the solution they should choose. That solution is rarely used by teenagers, though, and can’t be relied upon by employers of fleet drivers.
A Mississippi startup thinks it has the solution, however. VRM Telematics introduced a new product, Sentinel, at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Sentinel is a patented distracted driving system for parents of teen drivers or fleet managers. The device detects cellphone use and provides a warning to the driver before sending a text or email to the parent or fleet manager. It also provides vehicle location and speeding information and even can be set to indicate when and where the vehicle is turned on and off. Innovate Mississippi has worked with VRM Telematics for a while, and it’s been exciting to see them get traction in the marketplace.
VRM Telematics is also counting on providing another technology solution not related to distracted driving — usage-based insurance. Where age, gender and driving record were once the only criteria used to determine insurance rates, now credit scores and other criteria are used in order to best correlate with driver risk. Insurance companies have introduced products that plug into your car in order to offer usage based insurance based on actual driving data pulled from the car’s own Onboard Diagnostic Module (called OBD2).
Unfortunately there is a big problem with OBD2 connected solutions. The OBD2 plug-in is a direct port into the computers that now operate modern vehicles. By plugging in a device that communicates with the outside world, hackers can now access, or even gain control of vehicles. If this sounds farfetched, please look up the stories online of the hacks that have been shown through these types of devices. It’s scary to think about a malicious hacker tacking control of braking and steering when you’re driving down the road. VRM Telematics is hoping they can provide all of the same valuable data from their hack-free device.
Distracted driving is not a problem that started with technology, but technology has certainly made the problem worse. We’re always excited to see a great little Mississippi company raise angel investment and launch in the marketplace. It’s even better when their product can stop a serious problem like distracted driving and help to save lives.
Tony Jeff is the president and CEO of Innovate Mississippi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.