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Does voice-activated technology betray our sense of safety while driving?

Tue, 07/09/2013 - 2:39pm
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

Chris WarnerThere’s no end in sight to the tug of war between proponents of the connected car and those who want to curtail use of electronic devices for fear of distracted driving. The latest salvo from the safety side came in from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which in June released a study, Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile, with the help of neuroscience researchers at The University of Utah. The AAA’s announcement asserts “dangerous mental distractions exist even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road…as mental workload and distractions increase reaction time slows, brain function is compromised, drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues”. AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet added, “It’s time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars.” (http://bit.ly/13BBTJk)

The findings certainly challenge the perception that hands-free communication devices – often seen as more preferable to communication devices in the car that require physical operation – are relatively safe to use. That said, automakers simply are not going to stop integrating hands-free, Internet communications into their vehicles without legislative intervention, which usually lags far behind cutting-edge technology (for instance, see piracy and privacy).

Indeed, AAA’s press release predicts five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, and a spokeswoman evoked cold-war rhetoric when describing the automobile industry’s efforts to equip Internet-enabled systems in cars in The New York Times (June 12, 2013): “proliferation of these vehicles…an arms race.”

If nothing else, the study shows that hands-free Internet-enabled systems must free up the driver’s mind as well as the eyes. That means constant refinements aimed at making them as intuitive as possible, to the point that it takes far less mental activity than talking to an actual passenger in the car. The artificial intelligence in these systems will have to evolve further than what is available now to offer the degree of safety many of us previously believed would be possible with hands-free technology.

And since many drivers can’t resist the opportunity to do far more than driving in their vehicles, it’s no wonder that artificial intelligence must ride shotgun.

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