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WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY: SCOURGE OR SAFETY NET?

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As governments address road safety issues with a view to reducing traffic-related injuries and deaths new wearable technologies are emerging that their backers claim have the potential to improve driving.

Experts are divided in their opinion, with many concerned that the risks outweigh the benefits. This briefing explores the potential for wearable technologies to deliver improvements in road safety, and examines the arguments on both sides of the debate.

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WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY: SCOURGE OR SAFETY NET?

  1. 1. Wearable tech: Scourge or safety net? Written by:
  2. 2. Around 1.2 million people across the globe are killed annually as a result of road accidents, according to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Up to 50 million suffer non-fatal injuries, many leading to permanent disability. Furthermore, WHO figures indicate that road accidents are the eighth leading cause of death across the globe, and Wearable tech: Scourge or safety net? are the primary cause of mortality for young people in the age range 15-29. As governments address road safety issues with a view to reducing traffic-related injuries and deaths, new wearable technologies are emerging that their backers claim have the potential to improve Written by: driving. Experts are divided in their opinion, with many concerned that the risks outweigh the benefits. This briefing explores the potential for wearable technologies to deliver improvements in road safety, and examines the arguments on both sides of the debate.
  3. 3. Despite the worrying statistics, total road fatalities across the globe remain stable amid rising vehicle ownership. This relatively positive development is partly thanks to progress in road infrastructure, in education, in law enforcement and in emergency response to incidents. For example, road deaths in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) fell from 1072 in 2008 to 720 in 2011, according to official data, as the authorities took steps including the roll-out of more speed and traffic light cameras. Individual emirates The rise of wearable gadgetry have set themselves ambitious road safety targets. Dubai is hoping to eliminate all road deaths by 2020, while Abu Dhabi is targeting zero fatalities by 2030. Still, observes Nick Reed, principal human factors researcher at the UK-based Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), a consultancy, “the four things that most often lead to death and serious injury have been constant: failure to wear seatbelts, excessive speed, fatigue, and alcohol.” Furthermore, human error remains a contributing factor in over 90% of road collisions, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a US non-profit organisation funded by car insurers. The IIHS says that inadequate surveillance, distraction inside the vehicle, and high speed are the most common reasons for crashing. Now, a number of companies claim they can improve road safety using wearable technology, a fast- emerging sector whose products
  4. 4. are based on “advanced circuitry, processing capability and wireless connectivity” embedded in items such as wristbands, jewellery, glasses, or clothing. Applications for wearable tech include healthcare – for instance, devices that monitor blood sugar levels in diabetics and deliver insulin; and they include general fitness applications – for example, devices that track calories burned and heart rate. There are infotainment applications and military and industrial uses, too. Wearable tech is part of a wider trend towards greater personal assistance, points out Alon Atsmon, general manager of Infotainment Application Services at Harman International, a US-based car audio and infotainment group. “There will be more and more things that will accompany you, either helping your health or making your life safer,” he says. The total wearable tech market is worth between US$3 billion and US$5 billion, according to a May 2013 research report, and may grow to between $30 billion and $50 billion within 3-5 years.
  5. 5. No more drooping eyelids US-based company Skully expects to be part of that growth. Founded by Marcus Weller after he suffered a motorbike crash, the firm is now testing its AR-1 augmented reality helmet amongst motorcyclists. The helmet includes a head-up display, integrated rear view camera, voice-controlled user interface, and internet connectivity via smartphone. If you are wearing the helmet, the firm’s website says, “you can control your music, send texts, make calls, and change your destination hands-free.”
  6. 6. Other examples of wearable tech whose backers claim it can improve driving performance include smart watches, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. With the right app, wearers of the watch can make changes to their vehicle’s navigation commands, for example. Meanwhile, an app for the Pebble Watch is reported to pick up potential hazards on the road and warn the motorist by means of a vibration alert. One wearable gadget that is attracting Among these apps is DriveSafe, developed by New York-based IT analyst Jake Steinerman. If the app spots signs that the driver may be drowsy, such as drooping eyelids, it sends audio-visual signals to alert the driver. And Harman has adapted its advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) engine for Google Glass. Among other functions, the app is able to send the wearer an audio-visual alert if it senses a high risk of a collision on the road ahead. attention is Google Glass, a head- mounted computing device with a range of potential applications. The device provides a display in the upper right hand side of the wearer’s field of vision and responds to voice commands. Google is currently testing the product and plans a full-scale launch later this year. Already, a number of software developers have created apps for Google Glass aimed at enhancing road safety.
  7. 7. Switched on? Supporters of wearable technologies claim these devices can improve driver information, helping motorists focus on driving. For example, the display in the Skully helmet or in Google Glass may be able to present navigation information in a handier way than road signs, satellite navigation devices, or smartphones. Developers claim wearable technology can reduce driver distraction. Dr Reed of TRL agrees that there are sound arguments for wearable tech “making information more accessible and making presentation of that information more compatible with the driving task”.
  8. 8. Another point in favour of wearable tech is that it has the potential to monitor a driver’s physical state, including heartbeat and tiredness. There are also “possible opportunities for summoning assistance if there is an emergency,” believes Dr Reed, “or the vehicle doing more to take over in the event that the driver passes out or has a heart attack.” Wearable technologies offer these benefits to motorists regardless of the age and specification of their vehicle. But these benefits may carry a cost. Whilst some wearable technology such as DriveSafe specifically aims to combat fatigue, wearable technologies as a whole may in fact increase the risk of fatigue among drivers; that fatigue – both physical and mental – may worsen driving performance. A further risk is sensory overload, which may result if wearable technology devices deliver a high volume of information or if that information is difficult to absorb or is irrelevant. This, in turn, can lead to delayed reaction times and failure to detect critical information. Worse still, while some of those promoting wearable tech say that these gadgets can reduce distraction, the opposite may be true. Dr Reed says that “there is a concern that it brings with it your Twitter feed, your Facebook status updates, your text messages, and your incoming calls,” things that he points out “could present a significant distraction.” In other words, he argues, “there is a risk of a driver failing to attend to safety-critical information about the driving task.” After trying out Google Glass at the wheel for New York-based website iDigitalTimes, Doug Goodwin, part of the IT faculty at the California Institute of the Arts, noted that the device “takes on a whole new level of distraction.” His conclusion: “Even at three to four miles per hour, it’s awful.” Harman’s Mr Atsmon concedes that Google Glass “will require some learning and might increase the cognitive load,” as wearers get used to it. But he adds that, contrary to widespread misconceptions, Google Glass “takes only one eighth of one eye, which means that in most of the cases nothing is blocked and nothing is lost.” Among all the wearable tech devices aimed at improving road safety, Google Glass is dominating the debate. Already in the US, numerous states are considering regulation of Google Glass for drivers. Authorities in Ireland, Australia and the UK are figuring out how to deal with the device. Last January, a California court acquitted a motorist who was driving whilst wearing Google Glass; the driver had been charged under legislation against use of in-car monitors whilst driving, but there was no evidence that her device was switched on.
  9. 9. A 300,000 year- old design The debate around wearable tech boils down to how well drivers can interact with evolving technology to reduce human error. Here, the outcome of research by the IIHS is not encouraging. Collision alert systems built into cars are effective, the IIHS finds, but they are more effective if the car can brake autonomously to avoid the collision. Similarly, the IIHS concludes that lane departure alerts are ineffective unless autonomous lane correction technology is built into the car. Humans clearly impede the effectiveness of road safety technologies such as these. Even where people can interact effectively with road safety technologies, they may be prone to complacency. For instance, a driver may feel less need to be observant, or cautious, if lulled into thinking that a wearable tech device will help steer clear of trouble on the road. Increased driver assistance may tempt drivers to take greater risks in the belief they can get away with things that they otherwise would not. “We [humans] are a 300,000 year old design,” points out Simon Labbett, TRL’s United Arab Emirates director. “We were not designed to drive cars.” He argues that, amid all the smart technology, we may be losing sight of what the driving task entails: “Taking control of the vehicle and driving it down the road.” The smartest thing, he reckons, would be to remove humans from the driving task altogether. Road infrastructure is reasonably sound, he points out; vehicles are mostly okay; it is drivers that are dangerous.
  10. 10. A logical conclusion may be to build collision-detection technologies and other such devices into the vehicles themselves, rather than strapping them to drivers. “Let’s deal with the holistic approach to the vehicle rather than just a bolt-on bit that may actually not solve the problem,” argues Mr Labbett. Indeed, the IIHS research into the active-control mechanisms built into cars, such as automatic emergency braking, prove the point. These technologies have shown clear results, whilst wearable tech has not. Looking ahead, Dr Reed of TRL speculates that “a lot more transport will be provided by vehicles that you summon and that are able to take you from your origin to your destination without the need for driving.” By then, driver error may be a thing of the past. Mr Atsmon of Harman International believes that entirely autonomous driving will begin to emerge in the 2020s and 2030s, but that “some people will still want augmented reality to see where the car is going and what it is doing.” For now, as wearable tech devices make their market debut in the world’s high- income countries, 90 percent of road traffic deaths continue to occur in low- and middle-income countries. According to WHO data, just 28 countries across the globe, representing fewer than 500 million people, have sound laws in place to govern the basics – speed, alcohol, helmets, seat-belts and child restraints. Whatever the merits of wearable tech, addressing this shortfall has perhaps the greatest potential to save lives.
  11. 11. Acknowledgements Wearable Technology: Scourge or Safety Net? was written by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It examines the growing applications of wearable technology in motoring and road safety. The report was based on desk research and 3 expert interviews. The Economist Intelligence Unit would like to thank the following individuals (listed alphabetically by organisation name) for sharing their insights and expertise during the research for this paper: • Alon Atsmon, VP & GM Infotainment Application Services, Harman International, US • Nick Reed, principal human factors researcher, Transport Research Laboratory, UK • Simon Labbett, director United Arab Emirates, Transport Research Laboratory, UAE

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