Apple said to have a patent for tech that prevents texting while driving, but has not used it
NEW YORK — The court filings paint a grisly picture: As Ashley Kubiak sped down a Texas highway in her Dodge Ram truck, she checked her iPhone for messages. Distracted, she crashed into a sport utility vehicle, killing its driver and a passenger, and leaving a child paralysed.
With driving fatalities rising at levels not seen in 50 years, the growing incidence of distracted driving is getting part of the blame. Now a lawsuit related to that 2013 Texas crash is raising a question: Does Apple — or any mobile phone maker or wireless company — have a responsibility to prevent devices from being used by drivers in illegal and dangerous ways?
The product liability lawsuit, filed against Apple by families of the victims, contends that Apple knew its phones would be used for texting and did not prevent Kubiak from texting dangerously. The suit is unlikely to succeed, said legal experts, and a Texas magistrate in August preliminarily recommended the case’s dismissal on grounds that it was unlikely that lawyers could prove that the use of the iPhone caused the accident.
Kubiak was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to five years on probation.
The product liability case has brought to light a piece of evidence that legal and safety experts say puts Apple in a quandary — one it shares with other wireless companies. In Apple’s case, the evidence shows, the company has a patent for technology designed to prevent texting while driving, but it has not deployed it.
Apple, Verizon, AT&T and other companies caution about the risks of distracted driving — and they acknowledge that laws and public education aimed at curbing the behaviour are not working. It suggests to legal experts that they can foresee that their product can be used for illegal, dangerous and sometimes deadly activity.
AT&T even suggests that the behaviour has addictive qualities, meaning drivers cannot help themselves. But the companies — although they offer manual ways to shut down texting on the road — do not deploy technology that takes the decision out of drivers’ hands altogether.
“The technology exists; we just don’t have the stomach to implement it,” said Ms Deborah Hersman, the president of the National Safety Council and the former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Generally, companies have taken the position that text-blocking technology is embryonic and unreliable. They argue that they cannot shut down a driver’s service without the potential of mistakenly shutting off a passenger’s phone or that of someone riding on a train or bus.
Instead, companies have taken the approach of simultaneously warning and enabling, a mixed message that underscores a complex swirl of economic, technological and social factors. Perhaps the most pointed question is this: Even if the technology worked to perfection, would people accept having their service blocked? After all, the idea of mobile phone service is to let people communicate on the go.
Mr David Teater, formerly of the National Safety Council and now a private consultant on road safety, who lost his own son to a distracted driver, said companies clearly feared the consequences of cutting off service for their paying customers. It is an industry, he said, in which one of the most frightening words is “churn” — meaning the loss of a customer to a competitor.
“If you’re at Apple or you’re at Samsung, do you want to be the first to block texting and driving?” he said. “A customer might say, ‘If Apple does it, then my next phone is a Samsung’.”
But to Mr Teater, that is just an excuse. “If Apple had deployed this technology 10 years ago, there would be more people alive today,” he said. “Think about it from a parent’s perspective: How would you feel knowing Apple had the ability to prevent your teen from ever texting and driving, and they chose not to?”
APPLE’S LOCKOUT PATENT
In the Apple case in Texas, lawyers who brought the suit had unearthed a fascinating document: A patent filing that Apple made in 2008, which the lawyers said was granted in 2014, for technology that would “lock out” a driver’s phone by using sensors to determine if the phone was moving and in use by a driver. If so, it would prevent certain functions, such as texting.
In the patent, Apple says such technology is necessary because: “Texting while driving has become so widespread that it is doubtful that law enforcement will have any significant effect on stopping the practice,” and, “Teens understand that texting while driving is dangerous, but this is often not enough motivation to end the practice.”
It is unclear whether Apple has developed the lockout technology.
While texting is on the rise, people are increasingly driving and using Snapchat and Instagram, or taking selfies, or playing Pokemon GO. The phone is at the centre of all the activity.
Apple says it has taken other steps to address distracted driving. Its CarPlay integrates with some cars so drivers can use voice commands to control some functions of the car and the phone, including letting them orally compose text messages and listen to incoming ones. The technology, Apple says: “Allows you to stay focused on the road”.
“We discourage anyone from allowing their iPhone to distract them by typing, reading or interacting with the display while driving,” said Apple in response to questions. The company did not directly address whether it could or should shut down phone functions. Rather, it indicated that the responsibility was with the driver.
“For those customers who do not wish to turn off their iPhones or switch into Aeroplane Mode while driving to avoid distractions, we recommend the easy-to-use Do Not Disturb and Silent Mode features,” said the statement.
These approaches put the onus on drivers to make decisions each time they enter a car or receive a message. In addition, voice-activated systems raise other concerns, said Dr David Strayer, an expert on driver attention at the University of Utah, who said he had studied CarPlay and the feature allowed drivers to perform some functions that could take their attention off the road. “It does not eliminate driver distraction — not even close,” he said.
Technology is on the market that can block a driver from having to make a decision. One company, Cellcontrol, sells a device that mounts on the dash and uses high-frequency sound waves to identify a phone’s location. If the phone’s user is in the driver’s seat, the device can lock out prohibited services. The US$129 (S$175) device, which looks like a small turtle shell, “is very accurate”, said Cellcontrol’s chief technology officer Joe Breaux. The hiccup is that the technology can sometimes turn off the phone of a passenger behind the driver.
Apple, in its patent, said it was developing “a process in which hand-held computing devices can provide a lockout mechanism without requiring any modifications or additions to the vehicle”. It would use motion and scenery sensors to determine if the phone was moving, and its location.
By not putting the technology in place, Apple has “failed in their social responsibility”, said Mr Christopher Kutz, a professor at the University of California, School of Law, who specialises in the moral and legal principles of liability. “They should’ve done it, and even done it at a market risk.”
Apple, as one of the great cultural influencers, might have the power to make it fashionable to choose safety over the rush of an incoming text, said Mr Kutz. “They’ve made themselves a norm maker,” he said. “With great power comes great responsibility.”