Nissan's solution to the distracted-driving problem? A 181-year-old armrest

May 8, 2017

Nissan thinks that it's found the solution to the problem of distracted driving: a new and improved armrest.

"New and improved" are relative terms in this case, because the technology behind Nissan's armrest is nearly 200 years old.

Of course, distracted driving isn't a new problem, either: eating, drinking, smoking, and talking to passengers have been drawing the attention of drivers since the first cars hit the road. However, things became much worse with the widespread adoption of mobile phones and humankind's new favorite means of communication, texting.

The change has proven deadly for drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. In the U.S. in 2015--the most recent year for which fatality stats have been confirmed--some 3,477 people were killed in collisions caused by distracted drivers.

And that's where Nissan comes in.

Nissan Signal Shield

The Nissan Signal Shield is essentially a revamped armrest for the center console--the armrest that in most cars flips open to hold wallets, old CDs, and a jumble of power and auxiliary cables that haven't been used in years.  

In Nissan's vision for the future, that's where your phone goes, too. 

How is that an improvement? Because Nissan's center console works as a Faraday cage, a device invented by the pioneering British scientist Michael Faraday in 1836. 

A Faraday cage shields its contents from electromagnetic fields. Though there were few mass-market applications for Faraday cages in the early 19th century, the situation is very different in today's world brimming with phones, smartwatches, and other electronic gadgets. 

When you place your phone inside Nissan's Signal Shield and close the lid of the center console, the phone is cut off from external electromagnetic forces, including the electric signals that connect your phone to the cellular network. In essence, Signal Shield forces your phone into something like airplane mode, preventing you from receiving text messages, streaming music, or generally communicating with the outside world.

You can still take and receive calls or play music stored on your phone by plugging into the cables on the inside of the Signal Shield, which connect the phone to Nissan's infotainment system. To return your phone to civilization, all you have to do is open the lid of the center console. 

Nissan notes that the Signal Shield is still just a concept, and the company hasn't announced plans to offer it on any of its vehicles. Even if it did, it wouldn't solve the problem of distracted driving overnight, as drivers would still have to take the time to stash their phones in the Signal Shield every time they slid behind the wheel. (They'd also have to stop eating, drinking, smoking, and talking to passengers.) 

That said, it's an interesting development--and a simple, likely cost-effective one, too. It also feeds directly into Nissan's widely touted "Vision Zero" safety plan, the goal of which is to eliminate most traffic fatalities and injuries by the year 2025. 

Once self-driving cars become widespread, distracted driving is likely to become a thing of the past. Until then, however, concepts like the Signal Shield could fill in the gaps.

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