Twiddling with your phone while driving is dangerous. Susan Kuchinsk evaluates competing studies about the safest way to access infotainment
As more states in the US enact laws prohibiting texting while driving, and the US Department of Transportation continues its push to ban mobile device use by drivers, consumers seem to be getting the message that safety and apps don't mix. Automakers are making this into lemonade by advertising their telematics systems as a safer alternative.
Brian Radloff, director of solutions architects, automotive, for Nuance Communications, says everyone is clamoring for a solution to SMS texting in the car. "We did a lot of research, especially into the interface, to make it less distracting," Radloff says.
"If you're just looking for some music on your media player, it's a low cognitive load to push a button and say, 'Play Rolling Stones.'"
And, while it's easy enough to read an incoming SMS message via the text-to-speech, answering a text is much more of a cognitive load. Still, Radloff adds, "The studies we've seen indicate that using voice is safer than interacting with the application without voice."
Nuance, provider of the voice interface for Ford SYNC, touts a 2008 study using the Lane-Change-Task test, an ISO-certified test that monitored 30 drivers as they performed common in-car tasks such as selecting music, entering an address into the nav system and dialing a phone number.
The study found that, on average, speech input helped keep drivers' eyes on the road 200 percent to 300 percent better than manual input.
The study found significant improvements in drivers' ability to change lanes or to maintain the ideal position within a lane of traffic while using voice commands, as opposed to button-pushing and dial-twiddling. For example, drivers using manual input swerved within the lane 800 percent more for music selection, up to 1,200 percent more for navigation entry, and 300 percent more when dialing a phone than they did using voice input.
When they were asked to change lanes, the reaction times when drivers were using voice commands was consistently better than when controlling devices manually.
No one denies that hands on the wheel and eyes on the road are important. Some researchers, including University of Utah psychologist David Strayer, insist that talking on a cell phone is inherently more distracting than chatting with a passenger.
In driving simulators at the University of Utah, cell-phone users were more likely to drift in their lane, kept a greater distance between their car and the car in front, and were four times more likely to miss pulling off the highway at the designated rest area.
Passenger conversation barely affected all three measures. (For more on these studies, see Driver distraction: The battle over in-car apps.)
In rebuttal, Louis Tijerina, senior technical specialist in research and advanced engineering for Ford, points out that in many such studies, the tasks or conversations are particularly complex or emotional. For example, in one study, participants were asked to tell each other about dangerous situations they had faced.
"Most of my cell-phone conversations are pretty banal," he says. "'Hi, I'm running late, do you need anything from the grocery store?' It's not, 'Tell me about a time you almost died.'"
While he can't deny that stressful conversations do happen on the phone and in the car, he adds, "It's a question of common sense. There are decisions drivers have to make moment to moment all the time."
How safe is safe enough?
As early as 2006, in a year-long Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of 100 drivers as they traveled normally through their days, handheld wireless devices were the top distraction from the road ahead.
However, a later analysis of data from this study by Virginia Tech researchers found that reaching for a moving object, such as a spilling drink or something sliding off the seat created a much higher risk of a crash than things like putting on makeup or pushing buttons on a cell phone.
Tijerina notes that the "100 cars" study was specifically talking about manual texting. Later studies funded by Ford have found that voice recognition controls are generally safer than manual controls for doing common tasks like searching for music on a CD player or making a phone call.
In fact, Tijerina says, in some cases, talking on a hands-free mobile phone was safer than doing nothing: "When people are driving a boring, monotonous route, to remain engaged and alert, you talk to your passenger. It appears that one of the benefits of communication is that it helps deal with driver fatigue, not only lack of sleep but also time on task."
He says that having access to a phone or navigation system can also make driving safer by keeping the driver from getting anxious or flustered. When you can call ahead to say you're running late, you're not as apt to speed. And glancing at the screen of a navigation system beats trying to read a paper map while behind the wheel every time.
Beating the competition
Ford has been the first mover in the United States with voice recognition in SYNC. Both Ford and Nuance support bans on texting while driving, with voice recognition systems as a possible alternative. The OEM has moved the conversation from ‘gee whiz’ to safety while lowering SYNC's price by $100.
"We take driver distraction very seriously," says Michelle Moody, cross-vehicle marketing manager. "That's one of the reasons we're trying to make this voice-activated system broadly available." She says the new pricing strategy was driven by a desire to be able to offer hands-free calling on more of the lineup:
"We wanted an offer that would let us extend the feature to a broader group of consumers." But this advocacy may do more to prep the way for other automakers than to give Ford any competitive advantage.
First, by the time any legislation is enacted and takes effect, other OEMs will be up to speed with their own voice recognition systems. And, if and when voice recognition became universally mandated, it would no longer be a feature.
Says Steve Hilton of Analysys Mason Research, "To assume they’d have a competitive advantage is similar to assuming that people buy automobiles so they can talk on their mobile phones rather than because they want to drive places."
Doug VanDagens, director, Ford Connected Service Solutions, says Ford is trying to be a good citizen: "When the question is more on the borderline, like, should you be able to make a phone call in the car?, that's a debate to be held between consumers and regulatory bodies," he says.
"All we can do is to take a practical view of what people are doing in the car. If it's legal and being done for significant amounts of time, we have an obligation to make it safer."
Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.
For more on voice technology, join the sector’s other key players at Telematics Munich 2011 on November 9-10.
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