Driving with Google Glass: Road hazard or a smooth ride?

With lawmakers considering regulations that could limit or even prohibit driving while wearing Google(s goog) Glass, Google is fighting back. The company is lobbying against such action in three U.S. states, Reuters reported on Tuesday, while eight states in total are considering regulations against Glass behind the wheel.

Driving with Glass 2

The report suggests that Google feels it’s premature to institute any laws against driving while wearing Google Glass because the final product isn’t yet available. Currently, those who want Google Glass must apply to be part of the Glass Explorer program — a beta group that pays $1,500 for Glass and provides feedback to Google on the experience. By wearing Glass in public, Explorers typically provide Google Glass demonstrations to the general public as well.

Is there an issue here?

As a Google Glass Explorer myself — one who often wears Glass while driving and has a number of vision challenges — I can clearly see both sides of the issue here.

First and foremost, any action that helps reduce potential car accidents is a good thing in my book. I personally support laws that mandate handsfree smartphone use only while driving, even though I found them inconvenient at first. We don’t need more distractions while driving.

That’s why I take full advantage of the Motorola Assist Driving mode on my Moto X: When the phone detects that I’m in a moving vehicle, it ceases to notify me of incoming information save for a few exceptions. If a family member calls or texts me, my phone announces the event and voice-prompts me to take action or ignore.

Moto Assist featured

Google Glass has no such function at the moment, unless you count the power button. I could always turn Glass off when getting behind the wheel; I don’t even need to take it off my head as it doesn’t block my vision in any way. And by default, the screen on Google Glass isn’t actually on; it doesn’t show anything until there’s something to show.

In fact, a California woman who earned a ticket for driving with Glass didn’t have to pay because her case was thrown out for just that reason: There was no evidence that the Glass screen was active when she was driving. It did turn on when she looked up at the officer who fined her because there’s a optional setting to auto-wake Glass when tilting your head up — I use it myself.

Personally, I find Glass less distracting than my smartphone. To look at the phone, I’d have to take my eyes farther away from the road to find the phone and unlock it with a PIN. Yes, my eyes leave the road when looking up at the Glass screen, but not nearly as far. And Glass is designed to show a very limited amount of glanceable information, so attention reverts back to the road faster.

By the way, every time you look at a street sign of some sort, your eyes are leaving the road too. And because you’re moving, the signs are perceived as moving relative to you: Your eyes track those signs until the information is digested. Yes, the signs are distilled down to show the minimum useful amount of information, but that’s the same point I’m making with Glass: Most of the information appearing on Glass can be consumed just as quickly as that street sign.

The real problem: Where do you stop consuming information?

When I drive with Glass on, I know that there’s a rabbit hole of sorts. It’s the same one we face when driving with a smartphone nearby: How far down the hole do we want to go?  If I see an updated sports score or a breaking news headline, I could tap for more info but I choose not to. Similarly, if my phone sounds an notification alert when driving, I typically don’t take any action save for the special cases mentioned prior.

Driving with Glass 3

Ultimately, it’s up to us to decide what the next actionable step is when our device surfaces some information. Do we glance and ignore or do we glance and decide to take some action, which can then divert even more of our attention? In this way, Glass and smartphones are pretty similar.

The main difference is that Glass is more voice-centric by design than a phone. Not every action can be done with voice on Glass, of course; I find myself tapping and scrolling on the little touchpad quite a bit. Still, voice is a key input method for the wearable, while smartphones are more touch-centric.

It’s too early to condemn the product to legislation

I’m not a lawmaker or a lobbyist; I’m a Glass Explorer and general technology enthusiast. Ideally, I’d like to see each of us make our own decision on how to use personal technology as we see fit. That’s fine when nobody else can be affected. That’s not the case on the roads, however, when there are hundreds of moving objects and people making independent decisions.

Yes, safety has to be a priority but my hope is that we can accomplish that goal without legal restrictions. And I do think it’s worth waiting to see the final, commercially available version of Glass before any new laws are created. A technical solution that’s not ready for public consumption just yet could keep lawyers happy while making it safer to wear Glass behind the wheel so drivers can get directions, search for nearby points of interest or get other information that enhances the driving experience.

Driving with Glass 4

I’ve reached out to Google for comment on this situation and will update this post with any statements or responses.

Updated at 8:13am PT: Google has provided the following statement:

“Technology issues are a big part of the current policy discussion in individual states. We think it is important to be part of that discussion and to help policymakers understand new technologies including Glass.  Glass is currently in the hands of a small group of Explorers but we find that when people try it for themselves they realize that Glass is not meant to distract but rather connect you more with the world around you.”