Driving While Texting: Army May Be First in Israel to Put a Stop to It

The IDF is seeking a startup that will equip its jeeps and other vehicles with no-phone tech for drivers. The rest of Israel will have to wait, it seems

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Texting and driving; a woman using phone behind the wheel.
Texting and driving; a woman using phone behind the wheel. Credit: DjelicS / iStockphoto via Getty

Anyone buying a new car these days enjoys a wide range of safety features -- automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and lane departure warning, to name a few. If you try driving without a safety belt, you’ll get a warning beep, and if the system encounters a vehicle in the driver’s blind spot, he or she will be notified.

But while advanced driver-assistance systems, or ADAS, have been developing solutions for what seems to be almost every eventuality, one technology solution has remained out of reach: Driver distraction from using a smartphone while at the wheel. No effective system has been developed to deal with this problem.

Everyone agrees that smartphone use by drivers is a danger, but there are no official figures in Israel on the extent of the problem.

Research conducted by The National Road Safety Authority In Israel last year estimated that it increased the risk of an accident by a factor of 10.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich told a conference sponsored by TheMarker that most fatal accidents on intercity roads today were caused by drivers using Whatsapp and other smartphone functions.

A study by BDO that smartphones accounted for 19% of road accidents in Israel.

In Europe, regulations soon going into effect may require cars in the next few years to have technology that identifies cellphone use. If so, Israel’s transportation ministry is promising to adopt the European standard.

Meanwhile, the world’s automakers are starting to put smart cameras in cars that to alert drivers to dangers.

In Israel the solution has focused on education and enforcement, rather than technology. The tendency is to blame drivers for being irresponsible and lacking self-control.

As Smotrich said, “we need to undergo a cultural education change.”

But the reality is that people have become too reliant on their phones for business and personal affairs; asking them to remain disconnected for the hours they drive on traffic-jammed roads is unrealistic.

No budget

The road safety authority is open to technology solutions but in the absence of a budget nothing practical has come of its discussions with tech entrepreneurs. A year ago it asked the finance and transportation ministries for a 5 million shekel ($1.4 million) budget to build a facility for testing new technologies. As of today, the money hasn’t been allocated.

“We have to first examine new technologies so we don’t find ourselves creating new safety problems,” said Racheli Tevet-Wiesel, the road safety authority’s director. “After we’ve chosen the right technology we have to create regulations, which could make it mandatory on drivers or manufacturers. Another option is to encourage installations of systems like these by lowering insurance premiums.”

Strangely enough that technology may be coming from of all places, the army. TheMarker has learned that the Israel Defense Forces will soon be seeking bids for installing on all military vehicles a system that prevents cellphone use while driving.

The tender is in its final stages and will be issued in the next several weeks by the defense ministry.

The army has already had discussions with the Israeli startup SaverOne, which has developed a system for restricting cellphone usage. It uses four sensors installed in the vehicle to identify cellphones of those inside the vehicle and processes the data through an algorithm that locates where each phone is located. The one sitting in the driver’s seat is cut off via an app installed on his or her device.

It doesn’t sever all services: Apps like Whatsapp, YouTube and email are blocked but conversations and navigation apps keeping running. If the driver moves to another place in the car or the vehicle stops, service is restored. If a phone without the app installed is put near the driver, a loud beep will sound.

“It’s a solution that doesn’t require any cooperation from the driver,” said Ori Gilboa, SaverOne’s CEO.

The IDF had originally planned to buy SaverOne’s system without a competitive bidding process, but in the end it was forced to issue a tender. Nevertheless, the tender’s terms match exactly the features in the SaverOne system.

Lt. Col. (ret.) Yossi Ben-Simhon, a civilian military road safety official, said the winning system will be installed on between 2,000 and 4,000 IDF vehicles in 2020. The first vehicles to get it will be mission-oriented ones, like jeeps, Hummers and trucks; later they will be go on private cars provided to officers by requiring the leasing companies that provide them to install them.

Neither Gilboa nor Ben-Simhon expressed concern about the security risk of sensors and apps following soldiers in the field. “We don’t transmit anything or receive anything -- we just pick up electronic signals from the phone, identify a location and then apply the [no reception] policy,” said Gilboa.

SaverOne wants to markets it system to the civilian market, its first targets being trucks and heavy equipment. “Only 2.3% of the vehicles on the roads are deemed to be heavy vehicles, but their share of road accidents that involve injuries reaches 17%,” SaverOne says.

The EU is advancing legislation that will require automakers to integrate a range of safety technology in their cars starting in 2022. One of them is described as “Warning against driver drowsiness and distractions -- for example, using a smartphone while driving.” EU officials believe that such a system could prevent 25,000 road deaths and 140,000 injuries by the year 2038. The ultimate goal is to zero deaths and serious injuries by 2050.

The EU plan doesn’t contain details, but given what’s happening in global technology it seems the way to go will be driver monitoring by smart camera, sensors and machine vision. Systems like this have been talked about for a decade, but only now are they actually being actualized.

Last March, Volvo said it would begin installing car cameras to monitor driver behavior, like eye movement, and warn against problems like drunkenness or tiredness. If the driver doesn’t respond, the vehicle automatically slows. The first Volvos with the system will reach the market next year.

All eyes on your eyes

Sabaru is installing a system on one model that monitors whether the driver’s eyes close or deviate from looking at the road ahead for a long time. Other models will be getting the technology soon. Other companies, likeMercedes Benz and Nissan don’t use cameras, rather software that can detect tiredness or distraction by driig patterns.

The Israeli startup EyeSight Technologies has developed a system that uses infrared cameras and computer vision to monitor drivers in real time and, among other things, whether he or she is using a smartphone, isn’t concentrating or is distracted. The company recently announced it had reached a $15 million deal with an unnamed American auto maker to install the system on two of its 2021 models.

“Our technology identifies elements that demonstrate lack of concentration and drowsiness, such as head tilt, heavy eyelids and pupil movement. We can identify where a person is looking even if he is wearing sunglasses, said Liat Rostock, EyeSight’s vice president for marketing.

“In addition we can identify objects like cigarettes and smartphones if there in the camera’s field of vision. If someone is using a telephone near the shift, we don’t see the phone but we see that he’s not looking at the road,” she added. It’s up to the auto makers to add their own technology that act on the information, such as slowing the vehicle down or issuing warning, for example.

Even though the makers of driver-monitoring technology say their systems keep the images and data they are collecting inside the vehicle, it’s reasonable to assume that many drivers will be uncomfortable with the idea of their being under the watchful eyes of cameras and sensors.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of simpler applications to deal with the problem of driving while texting. For example, the iPhone has an option to alert callers not to disturb because the users is driving. Google has Android Auto, which is designed for use while driving (however, it’s not available in Israel).

In any case, they apps aren’t very effective for, among other reasons, that you can easily turn them off. They work for drivers with self-control. Many smartphone applications have a voice-activated option for commands or dictating, but for Israelis they don’t work well in Hebrew and can become a source of distraction in their own right.