Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Until the Self-Driving Car for All, What Is Tech Doing Now to Drive Us to Non-Distraction?

My tech-connected life has overdeveloped my confidence in my own ability to multitask. I have trouble not multitasking.

When I drive my car, I have to command myself not to glance over at my phone. Was that email notification important? Should I let someone know that I’m running late? Has anybody posted anything cool to Instagram? Somehow, driving and listening to the radio seems like not enough to do anymore.

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Shutterstock/Jinga

Obviously, I realize the dangers of distracted driving, and I know better. But I think that our tech tools could and should do a better job of helping us be safe.

Maybe the best way to combat driving distraction would be to reduce the need for our fallible, distractible human minds. The advent of self-driving cars will likely be scary, odd and expensive, but will also probably make the road much more safe.

Google has repeatedly said they expect general availability of self-driving cars in about five years. Besides Google, automakers like Mercedes, Nissan, Audi and others are all developing their own autopilot and assisted-driving projects.

Until we have robot cars, what other anti-distraction technology is out there? I’ve been poking around looking at startups in the space, and found some interesting emerging projects.

One major area of development is voice interfaces, so drivers can keep their eyes on the road. To that end, two startups, Umano and SpokenLayer, provide voice versions of news articles.

Umano is an iPhone and Android app that picks about 50 online stories per day to be read by voice actors. The stories tend to be about technology and pop culture, and there’s not a ton of selection yet. Umano CEO Ian Mendiola told me he hopes to strike partnerships with publishers (right now, he just hopes they ask nicely if they don’t want their content read) and with carmakers to integrate the app into connected dashboards.

Umano-Daily-Listen-Histogram-4-28-2013

Umano’s usage peaks right around big commute times.

Mendiola put together a histogram of Umano listens throughout the 24 hours of an average day that seems to indicate that users tend to tune in during rush hour, especially on the morning commute.

Meanwhile, SpokenLayer used to have an app like Umano, but now it’s trying to have broader appeal by providing voice tools to larger outlets like the New Republic magazine.

SpokenLayer graduated just last week from the Matter journalism accelerator program. CEO Will Mayo told me that SpokenLayer data shows that 62 percent of people who start listening to the audio version of an article finish playing it.

Mayo’s company just launched mobile-compatible versions of selected stories on Fast Company (here’s one) that are immediately published as automated “synthetic voice” files and then later replaced by a human narrator’s version, once it has been processed.

DriveAgent

The Drive Agent app helps drivers fend off texting correspondents, via automated text.

SpokenLayer currently doesn’t offer ways to build a queue of stories you want to listen to now or save for later, but some other companies are working around more of a continuous experience.

For instance, I’ve been trying out a “Pandora for news” app called Swell (not yet launched), as well as a new app called Antenna that bundles together a personalized stream, including local weather reports and relevant podcasts and radio segments that are less than 10 minutes long.

Plus, there are more brute-force, DIY approaches to voice interfaces. One venture capitalist who spends endless hours driving between Sand Hill Road and San Francisco, confided in me that he often uses the built-in iPhone VoiceOver accessibility option to read articles and emails out loud while he’s driving. Basically, he swipes at his phone to select blocks of text so he can hear them spoken in robot voice.

But it’s a total hack that’s easy to mess up for the uninitiated — who might, like me, end up locked out of their phones because VoiceOver mode changes how touch gestures work, and I had no idea how to enter my passcode properly.

Beyond voice, another interesting approach comes from a company called Tagstand, whose Android app, Drive Agent, helps users adapt their phones into driving mode.

When the app detects its user’s car Bluetooth system, Drive Agent launches automatically, and then automatically replies to text messages and phone calls with a pre-written “Sorry, I’m driving” message, based on preset preferences.

iOScarintegration

Apple’s upcoming in-car interface will calculate commute times.

There are a bunch of other apps to help users more safely send and receive texts while driving (Bonnie Cha reviewed three of them here), but Tagstand CEO Kulveer Taggar told me that his company is working on what sounds like a smart approach to expand this sort of functionality to detect additional life contexts and adjust. It makes sense — driving is not the only time in our lives when we don’t want to be distracted.

Taggar said his startup’s yet-to-be-released app (set to be called simply “Agent”) will help users automate many more configurations for all sorts of environments inside and outside the car. It sounds a bit like another existing popular Android app called Tasker. The challenge is helping users train these apps without too much setup, and finding smart ways to help them that aren’t just silly tricks.

And the competition isn’t only coming from other startups. Apple said last week that it plans to provide a special car-optimized interface for people who want to use their iPhones while driving. Promoted features include commute estimates (a la Google Now); support for calls, voicemail and text messages; and big-screen versions of turn-by-turn and audio controls.

“Apple iOS in the Car” isn’t supposed to be out until 2014, but Honda, Mercedes, Nissan and many other carmakers have said they will support it.

I imagine that some people who read this article will say some problems can’t be solved by just throwing more technology at them.

That’s true. But often I feel that the larger story of the tech industry seems to be finding more and more ways to erode our self-control. It’s not just me with the constant itch to get my phone fix. We drivers — and everyone else inside and outside of our cars — could stand to be a little more safe.


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald