Hands-Free Driving May Not Be So Distraction-Free

Hands-Free Driving May Not Be So Distraction-Free

Wheel with spokes

In an effort to curb accidents due to distracted driving, many jurisdictions — DFC’s home province of Ontario included — have created laws penalizing the use of hand-held devices while on the road. This has led to a plethora of “smart” vehicle interfaces, like Uconnect and MyLink, and smartphone link-ups like Siri and Google Now, that help you do all the things you need to (program your GPS, update your Facebook, text your dining companions that you’re going to be late) by voice command. This development is based on the assumption that hands-free means less distracted, and therefore safer.

The assumption may need reexamining in light of the latest two studies (in a series of six) out of the University of Utah, funded by AAA: in-car voice command systems are proving distracting in their own way, sometimes causing a driver’s attention to take up to 27 (!) seconds to come back to the road. This is due to the fact that most of the interfaces aren’t sophisticated enough for their intended uses, and have trouble processing verbal commands. This forces drivers into longer, clunkier, and more frustrating interactions with them.

The studies investigated the relationships between drivers and vehicle interfaces, assigning points based on the complexity of the task,

“[… a] lower number for using voice commands only to make calls or change music when driving — the same tasks done with the in-car systems — and a higher number that also included using smartphones to send texts by voice commands.

Google Now rated highly distracting (3.0, 3.3), as did Apple Siri (3.4, 3.7), while Microsoft Cortana rated highly to very highly distracting (3.8, 4.1).

[Senior author Professor David] Strayer says of both in-car information systems and smartphone personal assistants: ‘These systems are often very difficult to use, especially if you’re just trying to entertain yourself. … The vast majority of people we tested ended up being frustrated by the complexity and error-prone nature of the systems.’”

The studies also found that older drivers, whose attention spans are perhaps less used to the incursions of technology, are more distracted than younger drivers by their cars’ “infotainment” systems. The reactions of both age groups point to the need to reverse the trend of maximum connectivity to “fun” while driving. Eliminating texting, music selection, Facebook updating and other unnecessary actions will allow systems to become better at supporting the driving experience — and allowing drivers to pay attention to what’s in front of them.