Research Says Hands-Free Car Systems Aren't So Safe after All

Oct 07, 2014 02:30 PM EDT | Tim Healey


Automakers keep touting voice-recognition controls and driver-control aids as ways to increase safety and reduce distraction, but those technologies might actually be making things worse, according to research from an auto safety group.

A study commissioned by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that test subjects using Apple's Siri voice-recognition software, which began reaching the automotive market in 2013, averaged four points out of five on a five-point scale that measured mental strain.

That's more than what drivers experience when using a hand-held cellphone or changing the radio. The AAA says that three crashes occurred in the virtual simulator, with two of those happening while drivers were using Siri.

The subjects, who were tested by researchers at the University of Utah, were using Siri to send text messages, update their Facebook statuses and change their appointment calendars.

Lead researcher David Strayer told Automotive News that one of the virtual crashes in which the driver rear-ended a car that abruptly stopped in front of it was caused by "inattentional blindness." That means that the driver had her hands on the wheel and her eyes up, but still wasn't able to process what was happening and stop in time.

Strayer said that using voice-recognition to keep a driver's eyes on the road isn't enough. He stressed that people need to pay attention to what they're doing without distraction.

The researchers did not compare the risk of voice controls with other control systems, but it's still scary to think that even with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, drivers could remain that distracted.

Strayer's research team also compared various automakers' infotainment systems, finding that some caused more cognitive workload than others. Toyota's Entune scored the best at just 1.7 points, while Chevrolet's MyLink was the worst at 3.7 points.

A GM spokesperson said the test used older models that didn't perform as well as updated versions of the system, after the researchers said the poor performance was caused by system errors and lags in response time.

Voice controls are meant to help reduce distraction (and to help automakers sell more high-tech convenience features), but if they're doing more harm than good, maybe it's time for drivers to just simply drive.

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