Seeking a middle way for driving and smartphones

SenseHUD, a heads-up display for automotive uses, projects your cell phone screen, offering a speech-driven way to get directions, send text messages, and listen to music.
SenseHUD, a heads-up display for automotive uses, projects your cell phone screen, offering a speech-driven way to get directions, send text messages, and listen to music.

I am sure that was not you texting at the stoplight, consulting Google Maps in your lap as you spun through the rotary, or checking your calendar on Comm Ave to see if you had time for coffee before your next meeting. It was those other meatheads, no doubt, who are constantly fiddling with their mobile phones behind the wheel.

I don’t think we can expect them to switch off their phones whenever they put their cars into drive, even though that’s by far the safest thing to do.

But maybe there’s a middle path between those two extremes — a heads-up display that splashes information from your smartphone’s screen onto a piece of glass on the dashboard. Just the data you need, in your field of view, rather than on a mobile device rattling around in a cup holder.

Several startups are taking steps down that path, raising money from venture capitalists and taking pre-orders from drivers eager to install a heads-up display, or HUD, in their vehicles.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Michael Amaru and two of his colleagues from Malden-based SenseDriver Technologies picked me up in a small Subaru WRX sedan. They had no destination in mind, and perhaps I should have been worried.

“Let’s go for a little ride,” Amaru said.

Almost as soon as I got into the passenger’s seat, Amaru told me that after I blogged about his earliest prototype in 2011, he got fired from his day job. His boss didn’t like that Amaru was focusing on a side project. Oops.

Luckily for him (and perhaps for me), Amaru’s next boss, medical device entrepreneur and surgeon Kingsley Chin, took a liking to the project — so much that he became its biggest investor. They hope to start selling the SenseHUD system in 2016, for about $139.

On the dash of the Subaru was a sleek black device, into which Amaru had inserted an Android phone running a company-created mobile app. The information displayed on the phone’s screen was reflected in a special mirror, about the size of a small paperback, which pops up from the SenseHUD device. The display, with green graphics and large text, is subtle rather than garish.

The mirror can adjust the brightness of the image, so it’s visible in daylight or darkness. The app is driven by spoken commands: We set our destination as a nearby park. When I sent a text message to Amaru’s phone, he was able to respond without typing anything.

Trying to play music was a bit problematic. The app connects to the music service Spotify, but it couldn’t find songs by James Brown or Radiohead; Amaru explained the app had lost its connection to Spotify for some reason. (It worked after he reset something.)

The app could also post messages to Facebook or Twitter — which may seem like extraneous activity during a rush hour commute. But, Amaru says,“the idea is to make people feel connected, but in a safer way … to be a driving aid, not a driving distraction.”

While some auto makers like BMW, Lexus, and Buick are sold with built-in HUD displays, they aren’t yet widely available as an option. They also cost $1, 000 or more. So startups like SenseDriver, Navdy, and Hudway are racing to develop smartphone-based systems, at relatively inexpensive prices, that will work with any car on the road.

Of those three, San Francisco’s Navdy may have the most sophisticated device — a small projector that sits on the dash, connects wirelessly to a smartphone, and responds to both speech and hand gestures. Like Tom Cruise in the sci-fi flick “Minority Report,” you can swipe your finger to wave away a notification or pick up a call.

The company raised $20 million from venture capital firms in April, but its delivery date has continually slipped. The company wouldn’t respond to my questions.

Hudway, a startup with employees in Russia and the Los Angeles area, offers free apps for iPhone and Android that can put speed and navigation information onto your windshield without additional hardware. But it doesn’t work well in bright sunlight.

The company is developing a special reflective glass screen and a dash-top cradle for phones, which it plans to sell for about $50. (Unlike SenseDriver’s display, Hudway’s screen can’t adjust its reflectivity in response to light conditions.) Hudway raised about $1.2 million this fall on two crowdfunding sites.

Chin, the orthopedic surgeon behind SenseDriver, says he “sees car accident victims every night in the hospital,” and he believes the company’s technology can take the phone out of a driver’s hand and put it in a safe place on the dash.

But some researchers have found that drivers’ attention gets split when they are trying to watch the road and also interpret information intruding on their field of view in a HUD display.

How is that different from looking at speedometer or fuel gage? University of Toronto psychology professor Ian Spence explains, “One difference is that dashboard instruments need you to glance down — thus you are in control of the shift in visual attention. When things on the road are busy, you can keep your attention there, where it belongs, outside.”

Jeff Larason, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, an Andover nonprofit, suggests that driving-related information is fine to display with a HUD — route instructions, or warnings about stopped traffic ahead, for instance. But “Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, and calendar apps have nothing to do with the act of driving, and should not used by drivers while the key is in the ignition,” Larason says.

Knowing how tempting it is to treat the car as a communications and command center, here’s my conclusion: The day of the self-driving car cannot come soon enough. For now, heed Spence’s advice: if you feel the urge to gripe about traffic to your Twitter following, pull over.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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