AAA: In-Car Voice Systems Are Still Dangerous

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Three out of four drivers believe that hands-free devices are safe to use behind the wheel, but have they been lulled into a false sense of security? The answer, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), is yes.

The organization, along with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and David Strayer, Ph.D, a mental distraction expert at the University of Utah, uncovered poor results from two tests measuring cognitive functioning using several voice-activated systems and Apple's voice assistant, Siri.

The number of in-car infotainment systems is expected to increase fivefold during the next four years, which makes the survey results that much more critical, according to the organization.

The research measured the cognitive demand that current systems place on drivers and followed a similar study done in 2013. That study investigated whether mental workload or cognitive distraction could be measured, and indeed it could. As drivers were asked to perform a variety of speech-based activities, such as controlling the temperature or dictating Facebook posts, evaluators measured their cognitive capabilities: A "one" rating meant that the driver was not distracted at all, while a rating of "five" was considered the maximum workload that a human can handle.

"[Last year] we found that even when that technology is perfect—with no errors—it ranked as a category three for mental distraction," says Jacob Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA. Talking on a cell phone—handheld or hands-free—was ranked as a category two.

"This year, we looked at what [it was] about interacting with that technology that makes it so demanding on the driver," Nelson explains.

The biggest difference between last year's findings and this year's is twofold, explains Nancy White, director of public relations at AAA. First, researchers looked at why these technologies are mentally distracting, considering the voice of the system, the complexity of the system's menu, and system accuracy. The second phase compared actual systems in cars and Apple's Siri.

Six car manufacturers were chosen for the study because of their popularity. They were the 2013 Ford Explorer Limited featuring SYNC with MyFord Touch; the 2013 Chevy Cruz Eco featuring Chevrolet MyLink; the 2013 Chrysler 300 with the Uconnect System; the 2012 Toyota Prius V Three with Entune; the 2013 Mercedes E350 featuring the COMMAND system; and the 2013 Hyundai Sonata SE with a Blue Link Telematics System.

Toyota's Entune system was found to be the least demanding for the driver. "Toyota's system was more robust, meaning that it didn't make errors. Drivers could give a command in a variety of different ways and the Entune system knew exactly what you were talking about," Nelson says. "It didn't make mistakes such as changing the temperature to 105.3 [degrees] when really you wanted 

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