Google's driver-tracking tech could avoid an outright smartwatch ban

A new patent could make wearables at the wheel safer
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Safety campaigners all around the world - from the US to New Zealand - want to ban drivers from wearing smartwatches behind the wheel. The argument goes that smartwatches are potentially more distracting than smartphones and could cause accidents. But can wearable tech wiggle its way out of this potential problem?

Google is, of course, working on doing just that. 9to5Google has found a patent detailing new tech from Google which can detect whether a smartwatch is being worn by a driver or a passenger.

Read this: Smartwatches more distracting to drivers than smartphones

Like existing smartwatches, Google's system detects whether the person is in a moving vehicle using motion sensors like a smartwatch's accelerometer. If a user opts in, Google could track location, speed, acceleration and orientation.

But it goes one step further than this and, in part using motion data, it's able to decide whether or not you're actually driving the thing. So if you make an action such as turning a steering wheel or moving a gear stick, it will log that you are currently driving.

Safety first


As with Google's more futuristic self-driving cars, all this tracking has the safety of humans in mind. So if you are driving and your smartwatch detects this, it may choose to enable or restrict access to certain apps or screens. For instance, we could see the tech disabling all features apart from the watch face unless accessed via voice. Or it could simply switch the watch into a regular driving mode.

The patent isn't just concerned with wearables, it also refers to smartphones, tablets and in-car entertainment and sat-nav systems. This suggests a system that tracks motion via say, a smartwatch and a smartphone, determines the driver and then intelligently changes any necessary tech to make it safe, not to mention lawful.

With smartwatch sales in the tens of millions to date, safety campaigners are trying to get in early to suggest that tech companies educate early adopters in the absence of a total ban. Android Wear now has a 'cinema mode' which powers off the screen and apps such as Undistract are working on a similar feature which is triggered when the watch connects to your car via Bluetooth.

For any concerned smartwatch wearing drivers, the Google patent is available to read in full on the USPTO's site.

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Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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