Although car makers are touting voice controls in cars as the ideal solution for eliminating distracted driving, which has become the leading issue for road safety in the United States in recent years, many traffic safety experts have been claiming that they can pose significant safety risks, themselves.
Although car makers are touting voice controls in cars as the ideal solution for eliminating distracted driving, which has become the leading issue for road safety in the United States in recent years, many traffic safety experts have been claiming that they can pose significant safety risks, themselves. The debate over whether voice recognition systems can be just as distracting as handheld cell phones has been going on for quite some time, and now, opponents of making hands-free phone calls while driving have one more argument that will support their claims – a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety that says that voice-activated systems do affect a driver’s ability to focus on the road.
The AAA did a study on the potential distractions that can be caused by drivers using voice-controlled infotainment systems, and called it “Mental Workload of Common Voice-Based Vehicle Interactions across Six Different Vehicle Systems“. The foundation teamed up with the University of Utah to measure the level of distraction caused by six different infotainment systems. Researchers tested Chevrolet’s My Link system, Chrysler’s Uconnect, Ford’s MyFord Touch, Hyundai’s Blue Link, Mercedes’ COMAND, and Toyota’s Entune system, having 18 male and 18 female drivers between the age of 22 and 36 use these infotainment systems via voice commands. In addition to these six systems developed by automakers, researchers also tested Apple’s Siri voice-controlled system.
Drivers were asked to make phone calls by dictating phone numbers, compose text messages, switch between a radio station and CD, or browsing radio stations while driving for nine straight minutes, with hear-rate monitors and devices tracking their brain activity and reaction times, along with cameras recording their reactions in the process. After completing the driving course, they were asked to answer several questions, as well. Researchers created a five-point ranking system, with five being the highest level of distraction.
The results from the study show that Toyota’s Entune system was the least distracting, scoring 1.7 points, which researchers say is equal to listening to an audio book. It was followed by Hyundai’s Blue Link, with 2.2 points, with Chrysler’s system coming in at number three, scoring 2.7 points, while Ford’s MyFord Touch got 3.0 points, good enough for the fourth place, followed by Mercedes’ COMAND with 3.1 points, and MyLink by Chevrolet ranked worst of all systems tested, scoring 3.7 points.
Researchers ranked various tasks based on the level of distraction they caused. According to the study, composing text messages while driving causes the highest level of cognitive distraction, while listening to messages is less distracting. This suggests that automakers should focus on improving the systems’ abilities to recognize voice commands, in order to cut the time needed to complete the task of composing a message and reduce the level of distraction.
As far as Siri is concerned, researchers found that it is even more distracting than the automakers’ infotainment systems. Drivers were asked to use Siri while using a motor vehicle simulator, and two of them got into a collision while trying to compose a message or perform some other tasks via voice commands.
The main takeaway from the study is that all voice-activated in-car infotainment systems distract drivers, and can potentially increase crash risk, a claim that was obviously immediately dismissed by the manufacturers of those systems, but even though the study does not provide any evidence on the correlation between cognitive distraction and the risk of accidents, it can be of great help to automakers as they try to improve voice systems in their vehicles, and it could also help raise awareness of the potential safety risks involved in engaging in any activity other then driving while behind the wheel.