Carmakers have, in recent years, spent a lot of effort beefing up their entertainment systems, adding bluetooth connectivity to allow streaming from smartphones, as well as hands-free communication.
Consumers have reacted with approval. New car sales continue to rise each month and improved in-cabin technology may be one reason. But not everyone approves.
“Even though your car may be configured to support social media, texting and phone calls, it doesn’t mean it is safe to do so,” said University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer. “The primary task should be driving. Things that take your attention away make you a poor driver and make the roads less safe.”
Strayer and other researchers have studied these new systems to determine if they reduce distracted driving, or add to it.
One study found that using your voice to make phone calls and tune the radio with Chevrolet’s MyLink system distracted drivers the most. Mercedes’ COMMAND system, MyFord Touch and Chrysler’s UConnect were better, but all diverted attention more than a cell phone conversation, the study found.
Toyota’s Entune got the highest marks as least distracting. The researchers said using it took as much attention as listening to an audio book. Hyundai’s Blue Link was found to be a bit more distracting, but less than talking with a passenger.
In another study – both were sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety – researchers looked at how drivers use iPhone's Siri. They conclude that using voice commands to interact with the phone was more distracting than any other voice-activated technology – even when it was modified for use as a hands-free, eyes-free device so drivers kept their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
The problem, it seems, is the attention required to operate voice-activated technology, especially when it doesn't always respond correctly.
Making it worse
“We are concerned we may be making distraction problems worse by going to voice-activated technology, especially if it’s not easy to use,” Strayer said.
But Strayer harbors no illusions that automakers are about to return to a time before connectivity and voice controls. His point, however, is that these systems need to be made as safe as possible.
The studies both conclude that the most advanced technology, like Siri, can in reality be highly distracting when you drive. For example, as these systems get to be more complex, sending text messages or posting to Facebook requires more mental capacity from the user. If the user happens to be driving, it can be dangerous.
“Technologies used in the car that rely on voice communications may have unintended consequences that adversely affect road safety,” said Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The level of distraction and the impact on safety can vary tremendously based on the task or the system the driver is using.”
Previous research classified listening to the radio as a Category 1 distraction – the lowest. Talking on a cell phone, either hand-held or hands-free, is considered a Category 2 distraction. Using a speech-to-text system, to listen to or compose emails or texts is a Category 3 distraction.
In April the National Safety Council raised similar concerns about cars' entertainment systems. David Teater, senior director of Transportation Initiatives at the National Safety Council, said at the time that the brain doesn't truly multi-task. Just as you can't read a book and talk on the phone, you can't safely operate a vehicle and talk on the phone, he says.