By Freeman Klopott
and William Selway
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. is concerned enough about the bills that it 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.
South Korea’s largest automaker Hyundai will include an application to synch Glass with its 2015 Genesis sedan.
Some early research shows that Google Glass is less distracting than smartphones and might 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 barred from use while driving. A measure in New York would require the motor vehicle department to recommend how a ban could be enforced.
Google has hired lobbyists in 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 including Ohio 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 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 might prove difficult. Last month, a San Diego court threw out a ticket against Cecilia Abadie, a woman who might 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.
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. He is creating applications that detect fatigue and automatically limit the programs that can be used while driving.