New bill may allow the government to regulate map apps

A new bill proposed by the Obama administration, called the Grow America Act, may give the Transportation Department regulatory powers over apps like Google Maps and Apple Maps. If the legislation goes through, the agency, particularly its motor vehicle and highway safety arm, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, would have the authority to restrict the use of the apps or order changes to navigation services. This bill would affect mobile apps, not standalone navigation systems that already have existing guidelines in place.

According to the New York Times, the proposal, which was recently delivered to Congress, is meant codify the NHTSA’s regulatory power over navigation aids as it seeks to crack down on distracted driving. Currently, the organization has the same oversight authority over the production of mechanical components of cars. The proposal is said to have the support of automakers. However, technology companies argue that regulating navigation apps would be impractical.

“Anything that prescribes what we can download to our smartphones, tablets, or cars isn’t just overreach – it thwarts innovations,” said Timothy McGuckin, the CEO of electronic toll collection company GeoToll, in a blog post.

McGuckin went on to say that enforcement would be difficult. “But how can any regulatory authority hope to effectively police such a complex environment? Our smartphones, tablets, and embedded devices are constantly evolving,” he said.

The proposal comes as navigation apps, particularly Google Maps, continue to grow in terms of mobile usage rates. According to a survey from Nielsen, Google Maps was the fifth most-popular app for 2013, behind Facebook, Google Search, Google Play, and YouTube. Last year, Google acquired Waze, which resulted in the integration of community-driven, real-time traffic reports into the Maps app. Apple, with its Maps app, continues to lag behind. However, it recently made promising moves with the acquisition of popular public transit apps such as HopStop and Embark.