Car tech satisfies consumers’ desires but ups the risk of distracted driving: study

  • TECH
  • Friday, 06 Oct 2017

The 2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport relies too much on the touch screen. The navigation buttons are narrow and the screen layout and defaults take some getting used to. (Hyundai)

Using voice-to-text technology to create a text message while driving is considered as distracting and dangerous as trying to balance your checkbook on the road, according to a new study released Thursday. 

The study, commissioned by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety contends that cars with accoutrements, such as tools to used to surf the Web, tweet and update their Facebook status, can distract drivers for dangerous periods of time. 

These distracting and potentially destructive technologies, known as "infotainment" vary in every car, according to Beth Mosher, a spokeswoman for the automobile association in Chicago. They range from navigation systems, to music players, from phones to social media apps – all tasks unrelated to driving. 

For example, a driver of a car moving at 25 miles-per-hour could take 40 seconds – or cross the length of three football fields – to adjust the navigation system, according to the report. 

In another example, the study found that mental distractions can last for up to 27 seconds after the phone is put down after sending an email or text, according to Mosher. "What we found is that you're not cognitively focused on driving, but the distraction," she said. 

The study was commissioned by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety and authored by researchers from the University of Utah. 

In their research they describe several kinds of driving distractions: Drivers taking their eyes of the road by texting or looking at an alluring billboard is among them. Others include shaving, putting on mascara or eating. 

But there's also mental or cognitive distraction, according to the report, in which it seems as though the driver is paying attention, when actually, their mind is wandering. 

Experts say there's a paradox with the technologies available to consumers as they drive. Navigation systems have made driving safer and easier they say, but they are also enormously distracting and dangerous when used while driving, instead of before driving. 

The study ranked a pool of 30 vehicles' "infotainment" systems for low, moderate, high and very high levels of distraction – meaning visual (eyes-of-the-road) and cognitive demand. One hundred drivers participated, ranging from 21 years-old to 36-years-old. 

The Audi Q7, noted as one of the safest vehicles of 2017, is among a list of 30 new 2017 vehicles researchers evaluated with so-called "infotainment" systems with a "very-high" level of distraction. Included in the car, which allow drivers to use touchscreen of voice-based technologies among other tools, has a "very-high" level of distraction including WiFi and a user-system that is difficult to navigate, creating high mental demand for long periods of time, the report said. 

Despite the potential danger, consumers are increasingly demanding tools such as text messaging, Internet access and voice commands in their autos, experts say. Auto makers are for-profit businesses that have responsibilities to their shareholders, said David Teater, a car safety consultant. "They are not going to build the car's safest vehicle that no one is going to buy," he said. "If GM offers it [technology] and Ford doesn't, I'm going to buy the GM." 

Teater noted that automakers have the ability to allow drivers to disable certain car entertainment systems while the car is running, but have yet to do it. He's relying upon employers to lead the charge for change by requiring their employees to pledge not to use info gathering and entertainment tools while driving. That, Teater said, will trickle down to consumers. 

"Employers led the charge on seatbelts a long time ago," he said. What followed, Teater said, was a critical mass on the use of seatbelts and data on how effective they are. "Then we started passing laws and then we figured out how to enforce those laws." 

None of the cars we tested produced low demand, according to Mosher. 

Apple's Siri technology is considered among the most distracting among the user technologies in vehicles, according to the study. 

The system doesn't always translate voice-to-text effectively, Mosher said. 

"When our test subjects tried to send a text message through Siri, what was said and what was translated did not match up," she said. "So they'd have to erase it and do it again, which produces a higher level of cognitive demand." 

The research did not include Android voice-to-text systems. 

The 30 cars used in the study were selected for market share, their availability for testing and their "infotainment" features. None of the cars tested were listed in the low distraction category. In addition to the Audi Q7, cars listed in the very-high distraction category include the Chrysler 300, Honda Civic Touring, Mazda 3 Touring and the Volvo XC60 T5. 

The AAA has reached out to automobile makers and their suppliers to discuss their findings, Mosher said. 

But a lobbying and trade association for automakers said they had concerns with the study's research. The Automobile Alliance, a trade group that represents auto manufacturers said they had "concerns" on the research methods, citing that the results had not been tied to crash results. 

"Automakers agree that hands on the wheel and eyes on the road continue to be critical to safe driving," said Alliance spokesman Wade Newton in an email. "Portable phones and navigation devices are everywhere, and consumers are using these devices in their vehicles. It's important to discourage drivers from using portable electronics because they were never designed to be used while driving." 

But, Wade compared the infotainment systems to tuning the radio of adjusting climate controls, "which have always been considered baseline acceptable behaviours while driving," he said. 

Personal responsibility is also involved according to Jane Terry, director of government affairs at the National Safety Council, a Washington, D.C. based advocacy group. "We're not good multitaskers," she said. 

"When you get behind the wheel of a 4,000-pound vehicle, your attention should be on the road. Get your Facebook or directions in before you leave, not in the middle a trip." — Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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