Into the debate over whether all drivers in the U.S. should be banned from texting or talking on cell phones comes a new device that not only may help companies change their drivers' cell-phone behavior, but detect infractions and empower employers to take enforcement action.
inthinc Technology Solutions Inc., a Salt Lake City, Utah-based vendor of fleet telematics systems, is in late-stage field testing of a patented cell and text signal detection antenna. When integrated with the vendor's fleet management system, the antenna picks up on cell phone wave frequencies being emitted from the driver seat area and verbally warns the user to stop. It can record the incident in real-time on a web portal, or directly inform a fleet manger, providing the information needed to enforce compliance with company, state or federal regulations.
"We are a driving safety company," says Corey Catten, inthinc's chief technology officer. "We help people drive better by changing the behavior of drivers."
Catten says the telematics system the company sells uses the same verbal nagging technique to complain when drivers exceed speed limits, turn aggressively, slam brakes too hard or take bumps too fast. The new antenna, for which the company is taking pre-orders from dealers for delivery by mid-year, adds texting or talking on cell phones while driving to that list of infractions.
"It's almost having your spouse, or your mother, or your driving coach sitting next to you in the driver seat all the time," Catten says. "The constant coaching gives drivers the chance to do the right thing over a grace period—and if they don't, we record a violation on the web portal accessible to the owner."
The sensor is a highly directional antenna that sits like a halo, over or under the driver. It listens for signals coming just from that area. It consists of a thin circuit board about the size of a half a sheet of writing paper with a cable. Catten says the company hasn't decided what the outside case will look like yet, but 20, second-stage prototypes are installed on vehicles in the Salt Lake City area now.
The devices will be offered to inthinc customers as either a self-install add-on, or installed for about $50, Catten says. Other service costs have yet to be determined.
The company's timing looks good. The National Transportation Safety Board issued a call for a nationwide ban on use of cell phones while driving on Dec. 13. And that came on the heels of action by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration which issued a final rule on Nov. 23 banning the use of hand-held mobile phones by drivers commercial vehicles traveling interstate, and operators of vehicles carrying hazardous cargo anywhere.
Some companies in the construction industry, including Bechtel and the Shaw Group, already have begun to implement broad mobile device restrictions or bans, while others, as reflected in comments made to the federal DOT's final rule during comment period and recorded with the publication of the rule, bring up many nuances for interpretation, such as convoy coordination, push-to-talk one-button calling, and use by concrete mixers while idling.
"The antenna patent was issued a year ago," Catten says. "It's good that it's coming out now because of the increase in attention paid to driver inattentiveness causing a lot of problems."