Car pileups are often the result of drivers following each other too closely in low visibility conditions. Apple appears to be tempting this by being too tolerant of customers using its devices while they are in charge, and lacking the foresight to anticipate where this might lead.
Images of people using Apple’s new Vision Pro while driving days after the headset went on sale this week caught the attention of U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his department’s agency that regulates road safety.
To be clear, as Buttigieg himself has reiterated, all vehicles for sale in the United States require human drivers to be fully engaged at all times and ready to take control of the wheel. There are no “self-driving cars” today, including those equipped with Tesla’s Autopilot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has followed up on a statement deeming driving with helmets “reckless” and in disregard of everyone on the road.
Remember: ALL advanced driver assistance systems available today require the human driver to be in control and fully engaged in the driving task at all times. pic.twitter.com/OpPy36mOgC
– Secretary Pete Buttigieg (@SecretaryPete) February 5, 2024
Apple, for its part, declined to comment on the videos and pointed to safety guidelines on its website that discourage using its device while operating a moving vehicle.
Pointing to a single bullet point buried in 700+ words in a support page that most of its users will never read is an insufficient response to customers who are misusing Vision Pro.
You don’t need spatial computing glasses to imagine a deadly crash igniting a firestorm in Washington and drawing more attention to the broader problem of distracted driving. This is a significant risk for Apple and its most important product, the iPhone, as mobile phone use is certainly a factor in the increase in road deaths.
When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, more than 4,600 pedestrians were killed on U.S. roads, Cambridge Mobile Telematics noted in its latest distracted driving report. In 2021, 85% of Americans owned a smartphone and nearly 7,500 pedestrians were killed, the highest number in 40 years.
“Drivers are spending more time using their phones while driving and doing so on more trips,” the telematics service provider said in the report. According to its data, drivers interacted with their phones during nearly 58% of trips in 2022, up from 54% in 2020. In perhaps the most alarming statistic of all, 34% of distractions caused by phone movements occur at speeds greater than 50 miles per hour.
Apple has taken some steps, allowing iPhone users to enable a setting aimed at keeping users focused on driving while in a moving car. But the company itself states on its support page about this feature that it “is not a substitute for following all rules prohibiting distracted driving.”
Apple surely didn’t want these viral videos to distract from the merits of its new flagship product. But now that it is, he should do more about it.
If the iPhone can automatically activate a focus setting when it detects that a user might be driving, Apple should at a minimum equip the Vision Pro with a similar capability. Meanwhile, the company is expected to make this automatic activation a standard setting on the iPhone.
Buttigieg and the NHTSA would no doubt welcome Apple and its mobile device rivals competing to keep drivers’ eyes on the road.
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