The Department for Transport (DfT) has said it is looking at ways to allow Google Glass to be legally used by motorists in the UK after holding discussions with the California-based technology giant.
The news, which marks an apparent U-turn in government policy, has been greeted with dismay by road safety campaigners, who warn that the wearable technology will add to driver distraction and make Britain's roads more dangerous.
It comes on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the world’s largest such event, with several major carmakers due to announce how they will integrate Google Glass technology, which runs Android apps, into their vehicles.
The Sunday Times says the DfT has confirmed it is considering allowing the eyewear-based device to be used by motorists, with potential applications including satellite navigation.
A DfT spokesperson told the newspaper: “We have met with Google to discuss the implications of the current law for Google Glass.
“Google are anxious their products do not pose a road safety risk and are currently considering options to allow the technology to be used in accordance with the law.”
The statement represents an apparent change in policy since last July, when a spokesman for the DfT was unequivocal that the department would not permit motorists to use the technology while driving.
“We are aware of the impending rollout of Google Glass and are in discussion with the Police to ensure that individuals do not use this technology while driving,” he told the website, Stuff.
“It is important that drivers give their full attention to the road when they are behind the wheel and do not behave in a way that stops them from observing what is happening on the road."
He added: "A range of offences and penalties already exist to tackle those drivers who do not pay proper attention to the road including careless driving which will become a fixed penalty offence later this year." The latter came into force in August 2013.
Road safety organisations point out that existing legislation banning the use of hand-held mobile phones at the wheel were drafted more than a decade ago, and therefore could not envisage the development of technology such as Google Glass.
While it is legal for hands-free mobile phones to be used while driving, motorists can face prosecution if they are distracted, although the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) believes that such devices cause distraction by their very nature.
The charity’s head of road safety, Kevin Clinton, told The Sunday Times that he believed that Google Glass, which is controlled using head gestures, voice commands and touch-sensitive panels, said the latest technology posed just as great a risk.
“The government at the time didn’t envisage glasses with a heads-up display,” he said.
“All the research shows that even hands-free phones are distracting. These glasses are just as distracting and increase the risk just as much as any other hands-free device.”
Road safety charity the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) has previously said that the use of smartphones while driving to check email or social media accounts is more dangerous than driving while drunk or after smoking cannabis.
It has urged that Google and companies developing similar devices should ensure that phone calls and messages are disabled while driving, or require users to manually override any such bars on their device.
“Once you start putting ‘Joe’s Diner three miles’ or Facebook updates in a driver’s field of vision, distraction creeps in,” IAM’s head of technical policy, Tim Shallcross, explained.
Google Glass is not yet available for the public to buy, although The Sunday Times says that around 10,000 prototype headsets have been sold chiefly to US-based software developers.
The technology has already attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies in Google’s home state, however.
In October last year, a California Highway Patrol officer ticketed a motorist who was driving while wearing a Google Glass device.
The officer deemed that Cecilia Abadie, a product manager at a company that makes golf simulators and who describes herself on her Google Plus profile as a “Google Glass pioneer” had her field of vision impeded by the device, in contravention of the state’s driver distraction laws.
A court in California is reportedly due to rule later this month whether that legislation does apply to Google Glass.
For its part, Google says that the technology improves road safety, because unlike a separate satellite navigation device, the driver does not need to take their eyes off the road to see the display.
The report in The Sunday Times includes a road test of the device in Seattle of by its journalist Mark Harris, who said: “Navigating with Google Glass feels easier and more natural than with a normal sat nav.
“The voice instructions are clear and checking the route visually takes no more than a split-second glance upwards. Directions arrive in plenty of time and the display switches off when there are no turns approaching.”
He noted however that it lacked some of the information found in standard satellite navigation devices, and that while there is an audible signal to denote the arrival of an email or message, it does not appear on the display unless the user physically interacts with the device; in the case of an incoming phone call, however, the caller ID is automatically displayed.
The newspaper also cites out a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine had found that drivers take their eyes off the road for 10 per cent of the time, and that distraction is particularly prevalent among young drivers, with Google Glass potentially adding to that.
Nevertheless, Google plus car manufacturers such as Ford and Mercedes-Benz, as well as technology firm Harman which has been working on an app in partnership with Alfa Romeo and BMW, are among those due to outline at CES their plans utilise the technology. Nissan, meanwhile, is developing its own, similar product, called 3E.
Besides developments in Google Glass itself, CES is likely to see the launch of other devices and apps for Google and Apple as the two businesses compete in a technological arms race that one analyst said would lead to cars “becoming the ultimate mobile device.”
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.