“The Nissan Signal Shield concept presents one possible solution for giving drivers the choice to remove all smartphone distractions while driving,” Nissan Motor GB managing director Alex Smith said in its announcement last week. “This is about delivering more control at the wheel, not less.” The announcement comes as research by the RAC, a British motorists organization, shows the illegal use of mobile phones by drivers has risen from 8 percent in 2014 to 31 percent in 2016.
The shielded armrest uses a Victorian-era invention known as a Faraday cage. That was the work of British scientist Michael Faraday, who found that an enclosure made of conductive material, such as wire mesh, could block electromagnetic signals. In Washington, the Faraday cage last made headlines after Edward Snowden’s leaked documents revealed that National Security Agency engineers (NSA) work inside room-size Faraday cages while racing to design a computer that could break nearly every kind of encryption known.
Nissan says the prototype armrest — which has been designed to go into the Juke crossover vehicle — is still only a concept. It can’t be ordered in the United States or Britain and there’s no time frame yet for availability, a spokesman for Nissan Group of North America said in an email.
The company deserves credit for trying to find a solution to the growing problem of distracted driving caused by smartphones. The carmaker, citing research by Nottingham Trent University, says the average user checks a smartphone 85 times a day, with quick checks of less than 30 seconds so common that people often lose track of how often they look at their phones.
But trying is not the same as doing. The problem with Nissan’s concept — besides being just a concept — is that it relies on the driver’s good intentions. It also has some built-in absurdities. For starters, most cars already come with compartments that effectively block the use of a smartphone: they’re called glove boxes. Last we checked, smartphones also come with on/off switches and settings such as airplane mode. Finally, while the Faraday cage sounds pretty cool, you don’t have to be Houdini to defeat it: To restore connectivity, the driver can simply open the compartment. It’s a little like designing a safe without a lock where problem drinkers can store their liquor: It’s a cabinet.
What would be big news would be if Nissan designed a car with the equivalent of a Faraday cage that enclosed the driver and automatically blocked all smartphone signals when the vehicle begins to move. (Obviously, it would have to be some sort of device or technological fix that didn’t interfere with the driver in other ways.) We asked if the company might be headed in that direction.
“[A]t this stage, the project is just a concept and was designed to provide just one potential solution to reducing smartphone distraction behind the wheel,” the spokesman said. “However, Nissan is always looking at new ways of improving the safety and well-being of our customers.”
Here’s hoping they look even harder.