Are Speech-Enabled In-Car Systems Really Safe?

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As our awards issue suggests, the speech technology industry is becoming more ubiquitous. People are finding more uses for the technology in their personal and professional lives. But while innovation drives the industry, it can also be an Achilles' heel.

Not to take anything away from this year's Speech Industry Awards recipients—their achievements are well worth noting. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have many of the current speech-enabled amenities we enjoy today. Nonetheless, the viability of one area of the industry is being questioned.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a speech interface is the safest way for drivers to interact with their in-car devices. Using a speech interface enables drivers to, in the immortal words of Jim Morrison, "Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel."

However, just because it's safer than looking at and handling a device while driving doesn't mean it's safe. Speaking to in-car devices still requires some of our attention. And that's what's causing a stir. The article "In-Car Speech Systems Hit Roadblocks," by Staff Writer Michele Masterson, cites a recent AAA study that reveals the dangers of driving while using a speech-enabled in-car device. The article states, "as mental workload and distractions increase, reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, and drivers scan the road less."

AAA is wasting no time promoting these findings. Already, AAA President and CEO Robert Darbelnet has made the following public statement: "There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies. It's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free."

To make matters worse, what we're seeing now with speech-enabled mobile and in-car devices is only the beginning. If left unchecked, we could see more in-car distractions as wearable technologies—such as Google Glass—proliferate.

It wouldn't be prudent to ignore these concerns or become overly defensive of today's speech technologies. The most rational response would be to further investigate the matter with an independent third-party study. If this investigation confirms AAA's findings, the industry should commit to making today's speech-enabled in-car solutions even safer, or risk facing legislation banning these technologies from cars.

How industry leaders respond to the AAA study will be a defining moment for the market. And there's no better group of vendors to respond than the recipients of this year's Speech Industry Awards.

Congratulations to this year's winners. May they continue to advance speech technologies and the safety and security of those who use them.

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