Gary Howell has a vision, and it’s a grim one, involving a cat. A motorist is driving down the road, wearing his Google Glass. He decides to watch a feline video and breaks into laughter.
“When you’re rolling down the road in a ton-and-a-half of metal at 65 miles per hour, you can do some serious damage,” said Howell.
A member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, Howell, 47, wants to protect the roads from cat videos. He has introduced a bill to ban drivers from wearing Google Glass. Similar measures have been introduced in at least five other states, although the device is still in its experimental stage.
Google Inc. (GOOG) is concerned enough about the bills that is has hired lobbyists in at least two states to, as the company puts it, educate lawmakers about Google Glass.
“These ban bills could limit the marketability of Google Glass,” said Richard Bennett, a visiting scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute who co-invented Wi-Fi. “Driving is certainly one of the premier applications for Glass.”
Google Glass looks like a pair of glasses. With them, the wearer can access the Internet, take photos with a blink and, yes, watch cat videos. Google, owner of the world’s largest search engine, has been investing in Glass as it bets consumers will shift to wireless devices that let them snap photos, check e-mail or listen to music without smartphones or traditional computers.
Some early research shows that Google Glass is less distracting than smartphones and may be used to help drivers avoid hazards. Still, in a world where texting and calling while driving have caused accidents and death, some legislators want to get ahead of the next potentially dangerous thing.
Bills in West Virginia, Illinois and New Jersey would include Google’s glasses among hand-held mobile phones and other gadgets that are barred from use while driving. A measure in New York would require the motor vehicle department to recommend how a potential ban could be enforced.
Google has hired lobbyists in states including Wyoming and Delaware. As the company mounts a fight, application developers have already created programs for using Glass while driving that can monitor speed, give directions and detect fatigue -- all while drivers’ eyes are looking at the road rather than at a phone or speedometer.
Most of the bills put Google Glass in the same category as texting while driving, which has been the centerpiece of a campaign by the U.S. Transportation Department to cut down on distractions in the car. Forty-one states ban texting behind the wheel and 12 don’t allow hand-held mobile phone use. Hands-free calling and texting, which Google Glass can do, is typically allowed. The device’s ability to deliver videos and other potential distractions has some lawmakers concerned.
Anna Richardson White, a spokeswoman for Mountain View, California-based Google, said the company is entering the political debate as it works to convince policy makers that Glass isn’t dangerous.
“Technology issues are a big part of the current policy discussion in individual states, and we think it’s important to be a part of those discussions,” she said by e-mail. “We find that when people try it for themselves, they better understand the underlying principle that it’s not meant to distract but rather to connect people more with the world around them.”
The bills that would ban using Google Glass while driving remain in the early stages of the legislative process. Enforcing them may prove difficult. Last month, a San Diego court threw out a ticket against Cecilia Abadie, a woman who may be the first cited for wearing the device while driving. The ticket was dropped because there wasn’t proof she was using it while behind the wheel, according to the Associated Press.
The enforcement issue led New York Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, a Democrat, to introduce a measure that would require the DMV to recommend how police can ensure driver compliance with any law that bans use of the device.
“We know how hard it is to enforce texting,” Crespo said. “Imagine how much harder it will be to enforce something as inconspicuous as Google Glass.”
Jackie McGinnis, a New York DMV spokeswoman, said the department hasn’t determined whether Google Glass is a distraction.
While the display may keep drivers’ eyes on the road, it may also trick their brains into thinking they’re paying attention, said Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College in Schenectady, New York. Without Glass, drivers glancing at the speedometer are aware they’ve taken their eyes off the road and look back quickly, he said. With Glass, their eyes may linger on a virtual speed display.
“It’s a visual illusion,” Chabris said by phone. “You may think you’re noticing more than you actually are.”
Jibo He, a psychology professor at Wichita State University in Kansas, was among several thousand selected as early users for Glass. He conducted a study using Google Glass and a driving simulator that found it’s less distracting than a smartphone because drivers don’t have to look down, he said by phone. He is creating applications that detect fatigue and automatically limit the programs that can be used while driving. Hyundai has said the Genesis will work with Glass only for pre-drive operations.
“Whether Glass is safe or not depends on how you use it,” He said. “If you use it to detect hazards or fatigue, then it’s beneficial. If you use it for a phone or texting, it may be distracting.”
A Wyoming bill banning use of Google Glass while driving is premature, said state Senator Leland Christensen, a Republican.
“This may be one of those places where we may not want to close the door,” he said. “We don’t know where this tool is headed and where they’re going with it.”
If Google has its way, the issue may someday become moot. The company is developing technology for driverless cars.
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