Phone Use In Level 3 Automated Vehicles Is A Huge Potential Problem But I Have An Idea

Dash Phone Take Wheel

I’ve talked about what a confusing shitshow Level 3 autonomy is here before, and I still stand by that assertion. In case you’re confused–which you absolutely have every right to be, as the way the “levels” of automated driving are handled is deeply confusing–Level 3 is a form of automated driving where the car is capable of having complete control at times, but may also need to demand a human take over at unspecified times as well. It’s an inherently confusing level, but automakers are pushing ahead on L3-capable cars, and now we need to deal with all the related issues. One of these issues has to do with the use of mobile devices, and while it’s tricky, I think I have an idea for at least a partial solution.

Before we get into things in more detail, let’s be sure we all understand the parameters here. Here’s how the Society of Automotive Engineers describes Level 3 automation:

The SAE calls L3 “conditional driving automation,” and describes it as

“You are not driving when these automated driving features are engaged – even if you are seated in “the driver’s seat.”

The chart then adds this qualifier block of text for L3:

“When the feature requests, you must drive.

As I mentioned in my other article, the parameters about when a driver must take over and any details about how that transition should take place or how long the transition should last are still completely unclear. I won’t rehash that whole other story, but let’s suffice it to say that an actual autonomous driving engineer told me that “there is absolutely a lot of guessing going on.”

So, you know, that’s great.

But carmakers are already deploying L3-capable vehicles, like the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which conforms to the current legislation that limits L3 vehicles to 37 mph, making them primarily automated traffic jam-handling systems, though this speed restriction is expected to be removed in the future.

In the UK, there’s been a lot of talk recently about L3 regulations, including the practice of watching or interacting with non-driving content on screens, which would be allowed for built-in display screens on the car only.

You can see an example of this in one of Mercedes-Benz’ promotional videos, where the driver watches a video on the car’s built-in screen:

Now, what’s important to note here is that viewing or interacting with content on a handheld screen is not suggested, as noted in this BBC story:

Experts have suggested a vehicle can stop built-in screens displaying material unrelated to driving when the motorist is required to resume control.

But there is currently no comparable system to turn off handheld mobile devices.

This can also be seen in recommendations from the UK’s Law Commission regarding potential updates to the highway code for Automated Vehicles, which recommends the following be considered driving offenses:

Recommendation 4. 3.81 Initially, it should be an offence for a user-in-charge: (1) to use a mobile device (contrary to regulations 110 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986); (2) to be in a position to see a non-handheld screen (contrary to regulations 109 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986) unless the screen cuts out at the start of a transition demand; and (3) to sleep.

As you may be able to tell, the issues here revolve around the crucial problem of Level 3: sometimes the driver must take over, and that can happen at any point in time, so anything that keeps the driver from being informed of their need to take over is out: sleeping, using screens that are not connected to the car’s alert system, etc.

With Level 2 systems, the driver is at least expected to remain alert and ready to take over the whole time; since that’s not the case here, as L3 permits periods of complete disengagement, if you’re going to be watching something on a screen, that screen better have the ability to cut off your pornography or game of Cyberpunk 2077 and alert you that, hey, you better take over driving.

I think the problem here is that there is simply no reasonable way you can guarantee people won’t be looking at their phones, because, come on, of course they will if the car has relieved them (temporarily, for an uncertain duration of time) from driving.

All of their apps and contacts and content are on their phones, and it’s not necessarily on whatever is on the car’s infotainment systems; also, people have very personal content on their phones, and even if you could mirror a phone’s display to the car’s display systems, where it could be interrupted by a warning to take over, if there are other people in the car, I suspect many people simply wouldn’t want their phone’s screen visible on a large dash screen.

So, I don’t think the demand that only in-car displays be used in this context is realistic. But, I do think there is a solution: make the handheld devices work with the car’s takeover warnings and cutoff systems.

That BBC article even came close when it stated “but there is currently no comparable system to turn off handheld mobile devices.” The word “currently” there is the key one, because, well, why couldn’t a handheld device have a comparable system?

Here’s what I think could make sense: If you have a car with L3 capability, that capability cannot be activated unless the car gets paired with an application on the driver’s phone. The app on the phone does the necessary handshaking with the car to allow the L3 ability, and when it’s activated, the phone app passes the car’s requests for driving takeover to the phone, and simultaneously locks out the phone’s other features that would impede with driving–video applications, texting, etc.

Maps and normal phone calls could be fine, but that’s it: when the car wants you to take over, the driver’s phone displays the alert, maybe plays a loud sound to wake you up if you’re asleep, and blocks apps that would distract you.

If you don’t have the app on your phone, then you don’t get to use L3. That simple.

How would we prevent some other phone from being used to interface with the car, and the driver may have a second phone to watch things on while driving? Honestly, that I’m not sure about yet; I don’t have all the answers here, but I think this situation would be relatively rare unless you were just determined to be an idiot; after all, if you went through the trouble of getting a phone just to use while you drove, you’d have to be pretty committed to making terrible choices and I’m not sure how to help you there.

I think this approach can accept the reality that, duh, people will absolutely use their phones if they’re not required to actively drive or monitor, and the stipulation that somehow just built-in screens are okay and others aren’t is confusing and, if we’re honest, easily solved, technically.

Really, this is the easiest and cheapest possible solution to this problem: it’s all software, the car side of the software could be sent via an over-the-air-update, and everyone can download an app, especially anyone looking to buy an L3-capable car. Most carmakers have apps they offer already; this feature could just be included in those.

Level 3 is already full of confusion and problems. There’s no reason to add more.

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30 Responses

  1. So one concern I could see, people that use their phones for work and that work in fields that have very specific security concerns. I worked as a defense contractor for a while and got a company phone, used it as my main phone while I worked there. Anything I installed had to be approved by IT, anything I connected to had to be approved by IT. The phone was locked down enough that I had to specifically request that the camera be turned back on as I sometimes used it in the field.
    Its a niche area of concern, but I’d be curious how big of a niche area it actually is.

    Additionally, OTA abilities from cars are nowhere near secure enough for me personally to want to hand control of my phone over to them.

    1. Not as niche as you may think. Mission tortilla a subsidy of Gruma a world wide Mexican conglomerate equips every employee and IC with required equipment and apps to track their every move, blocks usage outside of company needs, all illegal I’m sure. But if I’m the employee I’m having my own phone. Also tracking GPS on company cars. Required drug tests if you are hurt at work or your company car is hit in a parking lot when you’re nowhere around. So no sympathy for Apple workers as there are far worse hells to be in.

    2. I am not sure who you worked for and it doesn’t really matter, but I have worked for a quasi-governmental site and unclassified, classified, and super classified modes were utilized in the room in which I worked.
      Some guys had two phones, myself included, but if you were an employee with clearance you couldn’t have your phone out at all in some scenarios.
      I would think that in this kind of case, if you can’t do the app, then you would have to drive like any other person.
      If you can’t do the app, then too effing bad.

    3. So you’re saying people might use their phones in L3 cars? People are using their phones right now in cars that don’t even have cruise control! Whatever measure you’re proposing for L3, you must also want to implement them for L2, L1, and L0, right?
      Idk how I feel about it. I’m instinctively against such heavy-handed measures as locking you out of your phone. Seeing as we leave it up to the responsibility of the driver not to text and drive in a “normal” vehicle, a distracted L3 user seems relatively benign.

      1. If I drove an L3 car, I would prefer the car to be able to interrupt my Wikipedia editing over allowing me to meet a fiery death. But you are right in that people do dumb shit in perfectly normal cars, too. I used to read while driving all of the time.

  2. Better than a separate app, you could convince Apple and Google to add that capability to CarPlay and Android Auto. This would give the L3 functionality OS-level access to the phone, which could be hindered on a standalone app. Apple and Google have been working together on smart home standards recently, so working together on smart car standards is conceivable.

  3. In addition to the concerns Mr.Asa notes about security, this seems like it would directly conflict with FCC (or national equivalent) regulations on the baseband processor in a phone, which is the thing that is supposed to have ultimate control over what happens RE: communications. Say you’re on an emergency call (911 or national equivalent), but your car also declares and emergency and wants to kick you off of your call, which one wins?

    One of the many, may reasons L3 automation is a stupid, stupid target. There must be a top level to the hierarchy of decision making, splitting the responsibility is just a mess from an engineering and liability standpoint.

    1. Not that I have any intention of ever buying a L3 car but that system assumes the end user has a smart phone. There needs to be a work around. Heck what if a user loses their phone? Should they be locked out of L3 features? Perhaps if the car cannot detect a Bluetooth or wifi signal it will bypass the ap handshake?

      I already find it annoying the number of services that require an additional $200 purchase to use select features that really don’t need to be locked into a pocket brick. Lets not lock features behind other devices that may or may not work in 5 years.

      1. None of these modern cars will work in 15 years anyway. They are being built as just another “tech appliance”. Obsolete and not practical to repair or update when at the end of their use cycle. Sad, because for car enthusiasts, the car’s demise kills the culture of restoration and modification with it.

      2. Build some sort of RF sensing unit into the cabin that allows L3 to be activated if it determines there are no phones in the car (passenger compartment, front seat area, driver’s seat area only…) at all.

  4. My first comment; I’ve been a fan for awhile. I used to be a researcher in this field before changing jobs; if you want to vet my credentials then reach out but will be in a similar position as your engineer contact. L3 is really in early development stages, where solutions for the vehicle interface are being actively researched at the same time as the engineering problems of actually achieving capable automation. Of course there are “guesses” right now; but those are also called hypotheses and can be tested and evaluated. The issue with phones is that they’re absolutely distracting if the automation isn’t capable; but what if it is pretty capable? Long periods of doing nothing lead directly to the vigilance problem in L2 you talk about.

  5. The whole point of L3 is to be able to do something else under very specific driving conditions…

    the example given is the traffic jam, but another one could be cruise driving in a motorway/autobahn/autoroute/autostrada/…( not US highways ) where entrances and exits are limited, there’s no level corssing, there’s constant concrete or steel railing on both side and the whole area is fenced.
    ( add to that the fact that in France, Italy and Spain most of them are also toll road so you have an easy way to detect L3 driving area entrance and exit )

  6. I am not sure who you worked for and it doesn’t really matter, but I have worked for a quasi-governmental site and unclassified, classified, and super classified modes were utilized in the room in which I worked.
    Some guys had two phones, myself included, but if you were an employee with clearance you couldn’t have your phone out at all in some scenarios.
    I would think that in this kind of case, if you can’t do the app, then you would have to drive like any other person.
    If you can’t do the app, then too effing bad.

  7. I lost some coffee on my desk when I saw the “sample emojis” on a hypothetical S-Class. Of course. Which made me start thinking, the rhetorical question of the millennium, what DO people do on their phones all day besides mindlessly wasting time?

    “Sup”
    “Sup”
    “WYD”
    “nada wyd”
    “my car is driving 70 miles an hour in rush hour traffic and I’m bored”

  8. This story caused my brain to kick start. I believe l3 is the 1st level for non driver taxis? If not still applies. Is the passenger of an autotaxi required to sit in the driver seat ready to take over or is there access in the back seat? Is the fare required to be a licensed driver? Otherwise a unlicensed driver is at the wheel responsible for take over at a moment notice. Whose required to have insurance? The taxi company who says they didn’t take over as required by l3 rules, or the fare I don’t drive I hired a taxi to take me there why do I need insurance? Seems all this tech will increase confusion and costs while nothing is appreciably safer?

  9. Two simple tests that prove L3 won’t be safe:

    -Sit somewhere boring like the DMV or any waiting room, note the percentage of people passing the time looking at their phones. Imagine their response time to “take the wheel”.
    -While in the same boring waiting room, see how difficult it is to NOT look at your phone while you pass the time. (don’t cheat and bring a book)

    Bonus. -Proof that modern cars won’t pass on car culture like older ones do in 20+ years: Give an old iphone (like a 3 or 4) to a teenager and tell them they can simply modify it to work like a modern phone.

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