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Study: Voice-activated technology doesn’t always make driving safer

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PHOENIX – Vehicles equipped with voice-activated technology are designed to allow drivers to multitask hands-free and increase their safety behind the wheel, but a recent AAA study suggests that this may not always be the case.

A car’s in-dash voice activation system, or infotainment system, can be frustrating to drivers when it doesn’t work correctly or is too complicated to use. It’s something that driver Will Sowards has gone through time and time again with his car’s Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch system.

“A lot of times it will mishear you and not understand you,” said Sowards, Arizona State University student. “I would yell and scream at this thing.”

AAA’s study took a closer look at how these and other problems with voice-activation features affect one’s mental workload and cause distractions for drivers.

AAA’s research revealed that while voice-activated technologies allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road, their focus can be impaired when these systems are complex or inaccurately process demands.

Stephanie Dembowski, public affairs specialist at AAA Arizona, said the study, which is the second phase of a larger study, took a deeper look into how and why these features are distracting.

“Your hands are on the wheel, your eyes are on the road, you should be able to just talk to this thing and everything should be fine while you’re driving,” she said. “Well, the research found that’s simply not the case.”

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and researchers at the University of Utah tested six voice-activated in-car technologies along with Apple’s voice-activation tool, Siri, and compared how each affected levels of distraction in drivers.

Participants drove on both real and simulated courses where brain activity, eye movement and heart rate were evaluated while drivers were tasked with changing radio stations and voice dialing with each of the systems.

Dembowski said the results varied across the board.

“But what we found is that these systems are still highly distracting for drivers, and the longer somebody spends working with one of those systems, trying to talk to it, tell it what to do, having to repeat itself, having to rephrase what it’s saying, of course the greater the frustration level and the greater the distraction,” she said.

The systems were ranked by five categories. Category 1 included tasks with minimal risks and Category 5 included tasks that posed the highest risk. Sowards’ Ford SYNC with MyFord Touch system ranked in Category 3.

Arizona State University researcher Robert Gray, who studies how human attention and perception affect driving, said he isn’t surprised that these technologies increase levels of distraction.

“In research, we know there’s a big distinction between looking at something and paying attention to something,” he said. “And really what a lot of people have assumed is that if you don’t have your hands involved and we keep our eyes on the road, everything will be fine. Which we know is not the case because when you’re involved in something that is mentally demanding, you can be staring straight at something and not see it.”

Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said the study brings up concerns over the growing number of vehicles that have elaborate infotainment systems installed.

“I saw some new cars, and I see those screens getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “If you offer distractions to a person, they’re going to be distracted. So I get concerned with that.”

Dembowski added that the study wasn’t meant to place the blame for safety issues on the manufacturers, but it should be a way to encourage them to improve their technologies.

According to the study, mental demand can be greatly reduced if interactions with infotainment systems are “as short and accurate as possible,” and it suggests that “well-executed voice systems have the potential to keep a driver’s eyes on the road without imposing significant cognitive demand.”

Sowards has installed an update to his system and said the voice activation is functioning better, but he said it’s all up to the driver to be safe on the road.

“It really comes down to the individual. If you want to drive safe, you’re going to take the necessary precautions,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a voice activated system or not. Negligence is negligence.”