Hands-free tech still poses high risk for drivers

AAA wants tech companies to limit what their in-car, hands-free systems can do

Hands-free technologies, such as Apple's iOS for car displays, that allow drivers to text, talk on their phone or even use Facebook while driving, are still dangerous mental distractions, according to findings released today.

The findings, from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, revealed that even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, the mental workload from hands-free tech distracts and slows their reaction times.

With a predicted fivefold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, AAA is calling for action as a result of its research.

The three levels of driving distraction from hands-free technology

AAA urged the automotive and electronics industries to explore limiting voice-activated technology to driving-related activities, such as temperature control or windshield wipers, to reduce mental distractions.

The organization also recommended disabling certain functions of voice-to-text technologies, such as using social media, email or texting, so that they are inoperable while the vehicle is in motion.

"There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies," AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet said in a statement. "It's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free."

On Monday, during its Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple announced it would be extending its iOS displays, like that of the iPad, to in-car displays. About 95% of cars sold today have voice-activated, integrated music playback and control from an iOS device, Apple said.

"But we want to take this integration to a whole new level," Eddy Cue, chief of Internet Software and Services at Apple, said during a keynote at the WWDC Monday. "What if you could get iOS on the screen that is built into your car ... so that you could make phone calls, play music, go to maps or get your iMessages right on the screen of your car eyes-free using Siri?"

Cue said the following car manufacturers would be introducing iOS features in 2014: Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, Ford, Chevy, Lexus, Kia, Mitsubishi, Volvo, Acura and Jaguar.

But, according to AAA, using voice-activated interfaces compromises a driver's brain function, resulting in drivers who scan the road less and miss visual cues, which could result in drivers not seeing items right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians.

The research was performed by cognitive distraction expert David Strayer at the University of Utah. Strayer and his research team measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers' mental workload when they attempt to perform multiple tasks at once.

The researchers used cameras to track drivers' eye and head movement, a Detection-Response-Task device known as the "DRT" to record driver reaction time, and a electroencephalograph (EEG)-configured skull cap to chart drivers' brain activity to determine mental workload.

A driver undergoes a cognitive response test at the University of Utah.

Drivers participating in the study engaged in common tasks, ranging from listening to an audio book or talking on the phone to listening and responding to voice-activated emails while behind the wheel.

The levels of mental distraction were represented on a scale of 1 to 3, 1 being the least distracted and 3 being the most.

Tasks such as listening to the radio ranked as a category 1 level of distraction or a minimal risk, while talking on a cellphone, both handheld and hands-free, resulted in a category 2 (moderate) level of distraction.

The highest level of distraction was attributed to listening and responding to in-vehicle, voice-activated email features, which increased mental workload and distraction levels of the drivers to the point of "extensive risk."

"These findings reinforce previous research that hands-free is not risk-free," AAA Foundation CEO Peter Kissinger said in a statement. "Increased mental workload and cognitive distractions can lead to a type of tunnel vision or inattention blindness where motorists don't see potential hazards right in front of them."

Computerworld Senior Editor Matt Hamblen contributed to this report.

This article, Hands-free tech still poses high risk for drivers, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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