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Hand-free technology in the car: Is it safe?

June 20, 2013

New in-car infotainment technologies may make driving more dangerous

By Ishani Hewage

A new study published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has found that hands-free technology intended to make life easier and safer for motorists is in fact more dangerous than initially thought.

Using data from simulations and on-road driving, researchers measured how engaging in different activities while driving affected cognitive distraction--distraction arising from mental effort. Talking on the phone, whether handheld or hands-free--presented a similar level of cognitive distraction to talking with passengers about subjects not related to the primary task.

Listening to the radio led to a smaller level of cognitive distraction, and driving while carrying out complex mental tasks led to the highest levels of cognitive distraction. What was most striking from the data, though, was that using in-car, text-to-speech devices that allow the driver to access email and text messages led to substantially higher cognitive distraction than cell phone use or talking with passengers.

With increasing investment in in-car information technologies that are designed to make driving a safer and better experience, these findings highlight the importance of understanding how seemingly helpful technology innovations may have unintended consequences.

"If the implementation of complex in-car technology continues without a sophisticated understanding of the risks and benefits, we risk creating a significant public safety issue," said Andrew Maynard, director of the U-M Risk Science Center. "The challenge facing automakers and electronics manufacturers is to think more intelligently about the benefits and dangers posed by in-car hands-free and voice recognition devices."

The U-M Risk Science Center is currently working with UMTRI to better understand distraction and driving.

"Using a fleet of cars equipped with sensors and cameras, we are able to identify causes of distraction and also how these affect the behavior of the car," said UMTRI research professor Ray Bingham. "By comparing how the car moves when the driver is distracted with an ideal driving scenario, we are hoping to develop an algorithm that is sensitive to driver distraction."

One aim of this research is to better understand how to introduce information technology innovations into cars that increase safety and usability without increasing the risks associated with distraction while driving.

According to AAA, the number of infotainment systems in new cars is expected to increase five-fold by 2018. With the recent announcement by Apple Inc. that it will be launching an iOS 7 in-car infotainment system that makes use of the Siri voice-activated communications interface, there is a greater need than ever to ensure that the safety of tomorrow's cars is based on science not speculation.

Photo provided by AAA