A traffic case out of California highlighted for many the concerns around whether the current “hands free legislation” – no texting while driving – should be extended to wearable technology.

Cecilia Abadie was cited (but eventually cleared) for ‘driving with a monitor (Google Glass)’ in California.  Her defence was that the glasses were not “on.” In fact, she claims to wear them all the time. Not surprisingly, the prosecutor’s case was made with traditional TV displays or screens in mind, and not the futuristic Heads Up Display, that Google Glass projects into a user’s eye. In this case, the Court had to decide: 1. Whether Google Glass was a monitor under that law (the Court said yes.) 2. Whether they believed Cecilia Abadie when she said that they were not on (Court said yes).

Some critics have said that in practice it will be hard for a police officer to know whether the device is on or turned off surreptitiously. Especially considering that the glasses can be turned off and on by movements of your head. Unlike Ontario’s law that prohibits driving with a screen, California’s law explicitly requires the display device be “operating” (layman’s terms “on.”). Whether we would have the same decision here is unknown.

The lack of clearly defined regulatory space that companies like Google face when innovating can be worrisome.  Should Google be developing functionality for this new product to interface with a car’s built-in GPS and Navigation systems? What if half-way through the development of these features, some states ban driving while wearing their product, as a number of states have done or are already considering. A company as large as Google might be able to stomach the loss, but for a startup, this sort of regulation could be disastrous!

One model smaller innovative companies have adopted with respect to regulation is to ask forgiveness later rather than ask permission first.  New distribution models allow for businesses to grow globally outside of local regulations. The businesses hope that by the time they are large enough to attract the attention of regulators, they will be large enough to bargain for better rule changes.  But this is a more difficult strategy for  wearable technology based on the upfront costs of development, manufacturing and distribution.

Canada’s regulations on most of these matters varies from province to province, but in places like Ontario, most of our regulations around technology are enacted years after the technology comes about, and almost always for the protection of public. The challenge with this is that it creates a climate of uncertainty for companies, just as can be seen for Google with Google Glass. The benefit is that there is usually less rules or laws that restrict technology innovation and development.

If we want to create an environment where innovation around wearable technology is possible, forward looking laws that also consider the interests of businesses are what is needed.

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