The app that lets you text and drive

Now, you can send texts, emails and even check Facebook while you’re behind the wheel. Legally.

Ever since the first house-brick-sized mobiles started appearing in stockbrokers’ Porsches and tradies’ vans back in the 1980s, the line between vehicles and workplaces has been growing blurry. Now it’s threatening to dissolve entirely.

Gadgets, such as portable printers, that make doing business from the backseat a lot easier have been around for a while but, up until very recently, driving while responding to work emails has been inadvisable, illegal and just plain inconvenient. That is about to change.

Gizmosis, an Australian company founded by Alex Kain (who grew up entranced by the abilities of the clever car on Knight Rider), is about to release OTTO, an “always listening, voice-operated, Android-based, personal driving assistant application” that, among other things, allows drivers to respond to emails and texts, navigate, and access Facebook without ever needing to look at a screen or press a button. And Kain is far from alone in his attempts to popularise the wired car.

“The US is leading the discussion regarding connected cars,” notes Sarah Stringer, Group Innovations Director at media agency Carat Australia. “Chevy is installing 4G in its upcoming models and there are already 23 million internet-connected vehicles on the road in America – a figure that is expected to grow to over 150 million by the end of the decade.”

Stringer believes we’ve only just scratched the surface of car-based communication, given the focus on grafting mobile phone interfaces and functionality into cars.

“There’s been a push to translate what people do on their mobiles into cars rather than exploring the opportunities of car-specific services,” she says. “To take an obvious example, a website with a lot of restaurant reviews could create an app that would provide options for where to eat in the area a car was driving through. There’s all sorts of new revenue opportunities for manufacturers; for instance, the data collected from connected cars could allow potholes to be mapped in real time, with that information being sold to councils and road authorities. I presume the reason that Google is investing so heavily in this space is precisely because of the commercial opportunities generated by connected cars.”

Michael Regan, a University of NSW professor with the Transport and Road Safety Research group is, somewhat surprisingly, sanguine about the brave new world of car-based working that’s bearing down like an out-of-control semi-trailer.

“There’s no going back, the technology is going to continue to move forward, smart phones and tablets are going to continue to be brought into vehicles and those sort of portable devices are going to support an ever larger number of applications as time goes on. What’s more, younger generations are going to expect to remain connected while they are in transit,” he predicts.

Given the genie is out of the bottle, Professor Regan is enthusiastic about the carnage-curtailing potential of voice-activated technology. “What typically causes accidents is when drivers experience what’s termed ‘cognitive capture’ and get absorbed in looking at something – be that a spider crawling up their leg or a message on their mobile phone – especially for two seconds or more.”

While Professor Regan is optimistic about the potential of voice-activated technology he is quick to point out it’s not without its own dangers. “Ergonomic design is very important but even with the best designed systems you’re not going to remove cognitive distraction – people are still going to have to think about how they interact with the devices, the way they need to phrase requests for information or commands. And research shows doing that decreases drivers’ reaction times and reduces their peripheral vision. That said, technology already exists that can work out if a driver is under stress, say by needing to turn across oncoming traffic on a rainy night, and which will block any incoming phone calls, emails or texts in those circumstances.”

Sadly, driverless cars that will be able to make difficult turns while passengers construct PowerPoint presentations seem unlikely to materialise this decade.

“I’ve spoken to people in the industry about this and completely autonomous cars – the kind that can, for example, interact automatically with other cars to avoid complex collisions – appear to be a long way off,” notes Professor Regan. “For the foreseeable future the human in the car will still have to monitor what’s happening and take back manual control if required.”

Stringer is similarly bearish. “Driverless cars will need to overcome public scepticism and achieve a mass price point before they take off,” she says. “Even then I suspect they’ll mainly be used as a type of public transport, a kind of GoGet/Uber hybrid, with consumers moving away from car ownership and embracing car access schemes.”

It looks like we’ll be combining driving with the daily drudge for some time yet.