If you've been salivating about hands-free infotainment systems in cars, it's time to calm down. A new report from AAA questions their safety.
The study, Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile, conducted three kinds of experiments -- a control where participants performed eight different tasks without operating a motor vehicle, a test where participants did the tasks in a high-fidelity driving simulator, and then a test where the tasks were conducted while actually driving in a residential neighborhood.
Each of the experiments tested differing layers of distraction, such as conducting the task by itself while driving, and then doing so while listening to a radio or talking with a passenger. Each concurrent task involved keeping eyes on the road and, except for one involving talking on a hand-held cell phone, keeping both hands on the wheel. AAA said the intent was to focus only on cognitive impairment.
'Most Cognitively Distracting'
The study determined that, compared with such other activities as listening to the radio or conversing with passengers, "interacting with the speech-to-text system was the most cognitively distracting." The cognitive distractions could result in drivers not seeing items directly in front of them, such as stop signs or pedestrians, AAA said.
After speech-to-text, the next most distracting activities, in order, were handheld cell phone, hands-free cell phone, a passenger, a book on tape and the radio.
The study concluded that the "adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety." Except for the one-handed use of a handheld cell phone, AAA did not measure tasks which take a driver's eyes off the road or hands off the wheel.
On its Web site, AAA called for action based on the research and in light of projections that infotainment systems in cars will increase 500 percent by 2018. AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet said in a statement that "there is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies." He added that it is "time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars," and cautioned against the common public misperception that "hands-free means risk-free."
The AAA is asking the automotive and electronics industry to join in exploring a possible limit on the use of voice-activated technology to such core functions as climate control, disabling certain functions such as voice-to-text for social media or e-mail while a car is in motion, and educating owners about the risks involved.
In announcing the results of its study, AAA cited other research by cognitive distraction expert Dr. David Strayer and a team at the University of Utah. Borrowing techniques from aviation psychology and other areas, and using a variety of sensing devices, the research ranked radio listening as a "category 1" level of distraction, and thus a minimal risk.
Talking on a cell-phone, either handheld or hands-free, was measured as a 2, or moderate risk, and listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated e-mail resulted in a level 3, extensive risk.