Despite being hands free, the connected car may not be safe for drivers

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on November 11, 2013

From The News Desk

Ever heard of the connected car movement? It's just like the connected home movement, but for drivers. It's a burgeoning sector based on the idea of building a "smart" car, one that's equipped with Internet and is therefore connected to its environment, can respond to cues, and interact with other objects like your smartphone. There's even an expo for the new sector.

But in order for the connected car trend to take off, there need to be safe ways for drivers to make use of the new technology. Basically, they can't be distracted from the road while navigating possible Pandora stations on their consoles.

To solve this problem, there has been a rush of new hands-free technology developed for drivers in recent years, from Nuance's Dragon Drive, which is like Siri for cars, to Mercedes' @yourcommand voice enabled media system. Automakers are getting ready, and they recognize that hands-free will be the pinnacle of the connected car movement.

Unfortunately for entrepreneurs, research coming out is showing that hands-free technology is still a huge distraction and safety hazard for drivers. The most recent, an academic study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, found that people were slower to respond to visual cues when they were answering questions mentally.

Researchers performed three different types of visual-voice command experiments on participants. In the first, people were prompted to search a cluttered screen for a particular object while responding to simple questions with verbal yes or no answers. The experimental group that answered voice commands averaged a full second and a half slower to finish the visual task than their control counterparts.

In the case of an accident, a full second and a half slower reaction time could greatly impact the severity of an accident and the possible injuries or fatalities.

In the second experiment, subjects did the visual cues test while answering questions silently or reciting A, B, C, D. No matter the case, these people were slower than the group that had no cognitive distraction. Thus the researchers found, “It is thinking that slows the response, not speaking."

In the third experiment, participants did more difficult tasks like spell-checking words. Once again, response times dramatically slowed, up to a second and a half for the more challenging tasks.

The more challenging the cognitive task, the slower the response time. But even for simple hands-free tasks, like reciting the early letters of the alphabet, participants were 200 milliseconds slower, or 40 percent slower than the group with no cognitive distraction.

The researchers concluded, "An impairment of this magnitude presents a significant threat to safe driving and calls into question the belief that hands-free voice-controlled devices are the answer to the problem of driver distraction."

So, let's summarize. The main way that connected car creators hope people will control the features is through voice commands. Research is proving that voice commands are a dangerous distraction for drivers. Where does that leave us? Not with a very viable connected car model.

Of course knowing Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs will probably keep designing voice-based connected car systems until lawmakers force them to stop.