Voice-activated tech is called safety risk for drivers
Research claims systems take driver’s mind off the road
MATT RICHTEL and BILL VLASIC
As concerns have intensified about driver distraction from electronic gadgets, automakers have increasingly introduced voice-activated systems that allow drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. But a new US study says that the most advanced of these systems actually create a different, and worse, safety risk, by taking a driver’s mind, if not eyes, off the road.
These systems let drivers use voice commands to dictate a text, send an email and even update a Facebook page. Automakers say the systems not only address safety concerns, but also cater to consumers who increasingly want to stay connected on the Internet while driving.
“What we really have on our hands is a looming public safety crisis with the proliferation of these vehicles,” said Yolanda Cade, a spokeswoman for AAA, whose Foundation for Highway Safety released the study on Wednesday. She characterised the rush to equip cars with Internet-enabled systems as “an arms race.”
The study is among the most exhaustive look to date at the new in-car technology and sets up a potential clash between safety advocates and the auto industry, given that automakers increasingly see profit potential in the new systems.
In some high-end luxury cars, like the BMW 7-series saloon, drivers can dictate emails or text messages. And some mainstream models are equipped with options that can translate voice messages into text. The Chevrolet Sonic compact car, for example, has a system that allows drivers to compose texts verbally on an iPhone connected in the vehicle.
More than half of all new cars will integrate some type of voice recognition by 2019, according to the electronics consulting firm IMS Research. The auto companies argue these systems are safer because they are hands-free.
“We are concerned about any study that suggests that hand-held phones are comparably risky to the hands-free systems we are putting in our vehicles,” said Gloria Bergquist, the vice president for public affairs at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington, adding that carmakers are trying to keep consumers connected without them having to use their hand-held phones while driving.
“It is a connected society, and people want to be connected in their car just as they are in their home or wherever they may be,” she said.
In April, the federal government recommended that automakers voluntarily limit the technology in their cars to keep drivers focused. The federal agency that made the recommendation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, did not respond to a request for comment about the research showing the potential risks even when drivers are looking ahead with hands on the wheel.
What makes the use of these speech-to-text systems so risky is that they create a significant cognitive distraction, the researchers found. The brain is so taxed interacting with the system that, even with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, the driver’s reaction time and ability to process what’s happening on the road are impaired.