How much does Voice Assisted Technology Distract Drivers behind their Wheels?

Ever since Knight Rider came out in 1982, automated cars which could interact with humans has been a fascination for most people. While the stuff of sci-fi books have turned to reality, it might not be such a boon as was once thought. Some of today’s cars do in fact respond to commands from drivers but is this necessarily a benefit?

The risks of using voice-based technology while driving may be more significant than you might have thought initially. While some consider such technology to help drivers by enabling the hands-free facility, the reality is that the risks that these new facilities bring forth are much more significant. Just because you use your voice in place of your fingers to command Cortana while driving doesn’t necessarily mean you’re playing it safe.

Studies show that using the voice command while driving may distract you for up to 27 seconds which is more than enough time to get yourself into trouble while on the road. University of Utah researchers, funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety ran a series of tests intended to test the safety of such technologies, and the results are nothing short of alarming. The studies prove that opting to go hands-free is much more dangerous than many of us might believe. Twenty-seven seconds, which is how long many of us are distracted while using such technology is enough time to cross three football fields while driving at 25 km/hr, stated the researches, making it clear just how significant the lack of attention span is and how potentially dangerous it can be with respect to accidents.

“The lasting effects of mental distraction pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers. The results indicate that motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving.” Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said while talking about the findings of the research.  

One study focused on the distraction caused by voice commands while another, chose to focus on the distraction offered by voice commands to the in-vehicle infotainment system. The researchers found that all such systems increased distraction to levels that were “potentially unsafe”.

Apple’s Siri and Google Now rank the highest when it comes to distraction while Microsoft’s Cortana came in a close second. Three in-vehicle systems ranked moderately while six topped the list. The system used in the 2015 Mazda 6 won this group with a rating of  “very highly distracting.”

One study was centred on how interaction with infotainment systems in cars from different manufacturers (Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Hyundai, and Mercedes) affected response times. The second part of the study was devoted to how texting or using apps such as Siri and Cortana affected drivers.

One hundred sixty-two drivers were chosen as subjects for the experiment and were asked to chat with their smartphones while driving. The trials had three different backgrounds, one being in a laboratory, the others being conducted within a driving simulator, and lastly one where the driver had to drive around neighbourhoods in Salt Lake City. Certain tasks such as listening to texts, commanding the phone and listening to music were rated on a scale of one to five with one being a relatively easy to drive condition and five being equal to having to drive while solving a complicated math problem.  

Results showed that the better the voice recognition software used, the less distracting the overall system was to the driver.  They also found that listening to messages while driving was less distracting than composing texts. Among the computer systems tested, Toyota’s Entune distracted drivers the least, while Chevrolet’s MyLink system, fared the worst in the tests. Apple’s Siri scored the worst in testing, though Apple mentioned that the unfortunate test results were due to the drivers not optimising Siri for the perfect hands-free experience. The study also found that, unlike in previous studies, listening to messages whether read by a human or an artificial voice resulted in the same level of distraction while previous studies argued that synthetic sounds led to higher levels of distraction.

“We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead. We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction,” said Bob Darbelnet, chief executive officer of AAA.

While the test results are shocking, this does not mean we have to abandon voice command technology, which is something that isn’t possible as it is something that everybody wants now. While it would be a mistake to throw the technology out, several issues need to be addressed with regards to such technology. Designers have to remove all kinds of clutter that might distract us and make sure the interface runs smoothly so that frustration stays low. A quick 2-second glance at your smartphone doubles your risk for a crash, and hence, it is us, who have to make the right decision and keep our eyes on the road while driving to prevent such mishaps.


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