Will Lawsuits Force Apple, Inc. To Prevent Texting And Driving?

By Anders Bylund Markets Fool.com

Distracted driving is a big and growing problem. In 2014, 3,179 Americans were killed in traffic accidents involving drivers diverting their attention to activities like eating, talking on their phone, or texting. It's the third most deadly factor in modern car accidents, behind only drunk driving and speeding.

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You'll be delighted to hear that iPhone maker Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has patented a way to reduce this menace. But the patented solution is not yet implemented on any of Apple's devices.

What gives? Let's have a look.

What's new?

Last week, a survivor of a distracted-driving incident filed a class action lawsuit against Apple. The suit is not seeking a big payout from Cupertino. Instead, it calls for an injunction against sales of Apple devices in California until the company implements its patented prevention method against texting and driving on devices both new and already sold.

"If texting and driving is a vessel of trouble, Apple is the captain of the ship," the court filing states. "The company enjoys 40 percent of the smartphone market share -- far more than the nearest competitor. And its profits are enormous. Fortune Magazine reports that in the third quarter of 2016, Apple generated 91% of the smartphone market's profits, equating to a cool $8.5 billion in net profit -- or about $95 million in profit per day."

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So the suit argues that Apple plays a significant part in the distracted driving problem, and has both a responsibility and the financial wherewithal to do something about it. Indeed, there is a tool on the table. The filing cites an Apple patent for disabling a mobile device when its motion sensors and other systems detect patterns consistent with driving a car. Filed in 2008, when the ancient iPhone 3G was brand new, and approved by the Patent Office in 2014, Apple has had an eye on this issue since the very beginning of its smartphone exploits.

But again, nearly three years after that patent got an official approval, the technology remains unused.

This lawsuit is not the first legal challenge to cite Apple's anti-distraction patent. It's just the first one that primarily wants to force Apple's hand into doing something with this allegedly life-saving technology. Others have been more concerned with cash payments for damage done by iPhone-wielding drivers.

Image source: US Patent and Trademark Office.

Why isn't Apple using this patent yet?

Many fully granted patents never see the light of day in a real-world implementation. This particular one could be among those for a variety of good reasons. For example:

  • Apple could be working on a better solution than the one described in the '143 patent, but the new and improved solution isn't ready for a date with the Patent Office yet.
  • The company might have found flaws in its original technology, which was developed and filed at a time when smartphones were a poorly understood novelty. Real-world experience and deeper research could have changed Apple's design requirements in a hurry.
  • Other companies may have unveiled better solutions for the dangers of distracted driving, perhaps as part of efforts to come up with fully automated driving platforms. Nearly every major auto maker is on board with the autonomous driving trend now, alongside plenty of technology experts. I'd be surprised to learn that Apple's efforts from way back in 2008 provided a better solution than what all of Detroit and Silicon Valley could whip up nearly a decade later.

That's just scratching the surface of about a zillion reasons not to take a patented technology to market. I'm sure that Apple will come up with many more if the lawsuit ever hits a courtroom.

Image source: Apple.

What's next?

No, I don't think that Apple will ever actually implement this particular deterrent to texting and driving. Lawsuits won't change that. Halting iPhone sales in California would be a powerful incentive, but Apple's top-shelf legal eagles can surely head that threat off at the pass. However, the fact that consumers are standing up to ask Apple for help with this conundrum could accelerate Apple's arrival at a more complete solution.

The company must balance the benefits of a life-saving safety feature against the risk that users might find the new restrictions too overbearing. If your phone came with opt-in restrictions on how you can use it in the driver's seat of a car, would you enable them? If not, you'd be part of the problem. Therefore, this is the kind of feature that needs to be forced on the user with no obvious way to turn it off. Otherwise, the change is not likely to make a difference.

Apple obviously doesn't want to push any of its loyal users over to Android and other platforms, where they can continue their risky behavior unfettered. Ideally, the smartphone industry would come together and push out protection against texting and driving. No fuss, no muss, and thousands of lives potentially saved. Top-down regulations would also do the trick, but that solution would also elicit pained groans of heavy-handed rules from every company in the mobile industry.

There may not be a real solution to the distracted driving problem until self-driving cars go mainstream. Until then, lawsuits and concerned users can only hope to turn Apple's smartphone designs in a safer direction.

Don't hold your breath.

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Anders Bylund has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2018 $90 calls on Apple and short January 2018 $95 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.