A decade ago, I wrote an article about the efforts of automotive technologists to make up for the fact that “we get sleepy while driving at night, do dumb things like put on makeup or shave while creeping along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or look away from the road to adjust our car radios.” Automakers were introducing safety systems such as adaptive cruise control, which maintains a safe distance between a car and the one ahead of it even if the driver is asleep at the wheel. Advancing just as rapidly along a parallel plane was technology aimed at keeping drivers connected to the world outside the passenger cabin. (To be sure, its unlikely that engineers back then were imagining drivers updating their social media profiles while traveling at highway speeds.)
Some of the innovations—routing mobile phone conversations through a car’s speakers to ensure that a driver could keep both hands on the steering wheel, for one—were specifically intended to combat the inattention to the road that results from looking down at a small screen. But even back then, researchers understood that these improvements, though laudable, were not enough to safely limit the cognitive demands that keep a driver from focusing on the main task—operating heavy machinery.
A new study released today by the AAA’s Foundation for Highway Safety reinforces that understanding. Most alarming is its conclusion that systems designed to allow drivers to dictate e-mail or text messages, or that translate text to speech then read the messages aloud—ostensibly meant to promote safety—actually worsen driver distraction.
This is a big deal when you consider that, according to electronics consulting firm IMS Research, more than half of all new cars will have voice recognition functionality.
The AAA study was conducted by David Strayer, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah who has long been one of the leading researchers in the field of driver behavior. Strayer and his colleagues put drivers in a simulator and a car stuffed with equipment for gauging how well a driver manages standard driving conditions and for tracking brain activity and eye gaze. They measured the level of cognitive distraction experienced when listening to a book on tape, listening to the radio, talking to a passenger, talking on a handheld mobile phone, talking hands-free, or using speech-to-text setups. Guess which activity put the biggest strain on the cognitive resources necessary to, say, stay in a driving lane, scan crosswalks for pedestrians, or react to brake lights in a timely fashion? Yup. Treating your car like a member of the typing pool demands more of you than holding a phone to your ear—no matter what several U.S. states that have banned that practice say about it.
In the 2002 article, ”Building Safer Cars,” I referenced a song that says, “Your body's here with me, but your mind is on the other side of town” in order to illustrate how a driver could zone out despite eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel. These new technologies, it seems, are exacerbating that phenomenon. “Look at new cars,” Strayer told the New York Times. “They’re enabling sending e-mails, sending texts, tweeting, updating Facebook, making movie or dinner reservations with voice commands. The assumption is if you’re doing those things with speech-based technology, they’ll be safe. But they’re not.”
The automotive industry has expressed concern about the study’s implications—well, at least some of them. “We are concerned about any study that suggests that hand-held phones are comparably risky to the hands-free systems we are putting in our vehicles,” said Gloria Bergquist, the vice president for public affairs at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington, D.C.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think comparably risky is an appropriate descriptor nor the takeaway the researchers intended. And it’s that kind of doublespeak that makes observers doubtful that automakers will do much in response to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s April recommendation calling for voluntary limits on the amount of distracting electronic gadgetry added to cars. They probably won’t shift gears unless the law demands it, Ronald Montoya, consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, an automotive research firm, told the Times. “They’re not going to pause based on this research,” he said.
Hopefully, you didn't have your car read this post aloud to you. I'd hate for it to be the last thing you hear.
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.