Even though we all know that talking on a cell phone while driving is not the safest activity in the world, we’re not giving it up. We are, of course, going hands free—in many states, that’s the law.
But short of turning off our phones all together, there’s not much else we can do. Or is there? Eyal Ophir and his colleagues in Stanford University’s CHIMe Lab (that stands for Communications Between Humans and Interactive Media) say there is. They’re currently writing up the results of their latest study on multitasking while driving.
This is the same group Stanford researchers who, in August, dropped a dime on multitaskers everywhere by proving that folks who think they are getting more done by juggling multiple tasks instead of focusing on just one are kidding themselves, and generated a media buzz.
This time, they looked at their favorite research subjects—multitaskers of two breeds, low and high. In general, they found, high multitaskers are easily distractible—that could be a good thing when they’re having a heated cell phone conversation yet catch a glimpse of something on the road ahead that could cause trouble. Low multitaskers are less distractible, which could mean that they’re more likely to focus on their cell phone conversation than the road.
The trick was to build some kind of tool that can help both types of multitaskers pay attention to their driving when it’s most critical.
I ran into Ophir at the unveiling of a new autonomous vehicle—perhaps the ultimate solution to the driver distraction problem, but one that won’t be parked in the average driveway anytime soon. He told me about the tool he came up with.
The concept—moving the voice coming from the cell phone around in the car. Not hard to do, with today’s virtual surround sound technology. Ophir designed a system that puts the voice up at the driver’s level when road conditions are relatively safe, then drops it down to the driver’s feet when conditions are more hazardous. He says he could have done it the opposite way and it appears that it would have worked equally well, but that research has shown that voices coming from lower than the speaker are less dominant, hence his choice of high and low. He tested the system with drivers in a simulator, and found that drivers quickly learned that a change in position of the voice meant, “Pay attention to the road!” They later rated the cell phone conversation as less distracting when the sound was coming from their feet.
In the real world, Ophir sees this system linked to the driver’s GPS and a database of accidents, to identify potentially treacherous areas of road. Ophir expects to publish this research soon.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.