Hands-Free Infotainment Isn't The Solution To Distracted Driving, Researchers Warn

Take the wheel of a late-model Toyota and chances are good that the dashboard offers an on-board infotainment system enabling you to search the web for nearby Indian restaurants, play Katy Perry via Pandora, book tickets for a blockbuster movie and listen to incoming texts -- all while using your voice alone to guide the technology.

Like much of the automotive world, Toyota is packing infotainment systems into its vehicles, a trend expected to yield some $32 billion in sales this year, according to Visiongain, an industry research group.

Automakers are touting voice-activated infotainment systems as a responsible, safety-conscious response to the demands of the modern consumer: In a time of near-ubiquitous connectivity, drivers want access to their phones, their music, their emails and their apps on the go, and hands-free technologies should eliminate the need to look away from the road.

"Voice recognition is a critical part of our total strategy for driver distraction," said Jim Pisz, corporate manager of North American business strategy at Toyota. "We believe that hands on the wheel, eyes directly ahead is the best policy for being able to prevent driver distraction."

Yet safety advocates accuse the automakers of misrepresenting safety concerns when peddling new products. Far from making driving safer, they say, these infotainment systems simply enable carmakers to pack their models with high-priced devices that still create cognitive distractions for drivers -- with potentially fatal consequences.

"Simply keeping a driver's hands on the wheel and eyes on the road isn't enough to keep someone safe," Justin McNaull, spokesperson for the American Automobile Association, told The Huffington Post. "Just because you can put a technology in a vehicle and a consumer might want to use it doesn't mean it's right, safe or appropriate to do so."

When drivers engage in complex multitasking, they experience a decrease in brain function and reaction time, and an increase in crash risk, according to a recent study by the American Automobile Association and the University of Utah. The researchers monitored levels of mental distraction as drivers completed tasks like listening to an audiobook, talking on the phone, and listening and responding to text messages. Engaging with voice-activated technologies represented the most "extensive risk," the study found.

The proliferation of infotainment systems -- expected to increase fivefold in new vehicles by 2018 -- is a "looming public safety crisis," warned AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet, in a statement accompanying the study.

"There has been a move to get away from visual and manual distractions -- which is reasonable, we don't want to take our eyes off the road -- but if we just push everything to a speech-based interface, and assume that because our eyes are on the road and hands are on the wheel that you're not going to be impaired, that assumption isn't warranted," said David Strayer, a cognitive distraction expert at the University of Utah and the study's author, in an interview. "You should not do that."

The AAA study is the latest of more than 30 research studies and reports to show that hands-free phones offer no safety benefit for drivers when compared to handheld phones, according to the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization that researches distracted driving.

But this study in particular has generated backlash from automakers and purveyors of the electronics landing inside cars, who insist that voice-activated technologies are safe for drivers.

The study "suffers from a number of methodology flaws," asserted the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group that represents 2,000 companies in the consumer-technology industry. Wade Newton, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group that represents 12 of the largest car companies, told HuffPost that the study "sends a misleading message."

The auto industry points to several naturalistic driving studies -- those that observe behavior by real drivers on real roads, rather than in simulators or designed experiments -- conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In one recent study, researchers installed cameras in 204 cars and monitored driving behavior for 31 days.

In contrast to the AAA study, their findings suggest that any danger of using technology while driving is due primarily to visual and manual distractions. In short, using a hands-free device to talk on the phone does not inherently increase crash risk.

"The risk lies in when your eyes are off the road," Gregory Fitch, the study's author, told HuffPost. "If you can keep your eyes on the road, you're going to be fine. It gets blown out of proportion, the effects of talking while driving."

Industry groups argue that their hands-free offerings represent a practical response to an inescapable reality: People are going to talk and text on their phones while driving. The question is whether they will do so while physically handling those devices or through a voice-prompted system.

"If what's in the vehicle doesn't meet what the consumer needs, they can just go to an electronics store and buy something to stick on the dashboard, or leave their iPod on the front seat," said Newton. "Consumers are sending us such a strong message when they put the phone in their cupholders."

Further blurring the line between vehicles and computing, Ford partnered with Microsoft in 2007 to develop its Sync infotainment system, which lets drivers control dozens of smartphone apps like Twitter and Spotify through voice commands. "If it's legal and we have evidence that our customers en masse are doing it, then we will voice-enable it," said Doug VanDagens, who is the global director of connected services at Ford.

Even companies with little prior involvement in the automotive industry find in-vehicle infotainment ripe for growth. At its annual developer's conference last month, Apple debuted iOS in the Car, a feature of its forthcoming mobile operating system that will integrate Siri, iTunes, iMessage and Maps in cars from 12 manufacturers beginning in 2014.

But while these products may cater to the demands of drivers, the research suggests that they're still far from making the roads safer, said David Teater, senior director of the National Safety Council.

"I don't know why you would just charge forth blindly putting these technologies in vehicles when you've got research telling you it's dangerous," he said. "To come and say that cell phones don't cause crashes when it conflicts with all this other information is just amazing."

Further complicating the safety debate is the fact that automobile infotainment systems are being developed faster than independent researchers can analyze their effects.

The auto and electronics industries say they base their safety decisions only on naturalistic studies that monitor drivers on real roads over an extended period of time. But so far, there have been no such studies published on the safety of voice-to-text applications.

All naturalistic studies to date have only looked at hands-free calling -- not the more complicated procedures of, say, publishing a Facebook status, checking stock prices, or getting date ideas from the BeCouply app while driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it's beginning to conduct such a study.

"No one really wants to put something out there that is unsafe, but there's a lot of competitive forces that are saying, 'Hey, if Brand A has the ability to update Facebook, we'd better put it in there too,'" said Strayer, the AAA study's author. "To keep up with the Joneses can sometimes get in front of evaluating the safety features of all the things that are out there."

Four years ago, only 14 states had banned texting while driving, and just five had banned handheld calling. But many states have since enacted laws aimed at cracking down on distracted driving. Today, 41 states prohibit drivers from texting, and 11 ban handheld calling. Now, as more research emerges that hands-free calling and web surfing appear to pose significant dangers as well, lawmakers are turning their attention to this new frontier.

In February, California Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Oakley) introduced a bill aimed at widening the scope of California's ban on handheld cell phone use while driving to include voice-to-text technologies.

According to Frazier, auto industry lobbying swiftly killed his bill -- no difficult feat in a state where many people spend more time in their cars than in their homes. But he vowed to reintroduce the measure during the next legislative session.

"As a father who lost a child in a car accident, would we want to have the ability to voice text or actually hurt somebody?" Frazier said. "I would rather think that people would be more conscious about other people's safety rather than the ability to drive another five minutes, pull into a parking lot, and text somebody while they're parked."

While policymakers, industry players and researchers jockey over where to draw the line on distracted driving, the safety of the roadways may ultimately lie with consumers.

Nine in 10 Americans now grasp that talking on the phone while driving poses a substantial danger, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Yet seven in 10 report that they themselves talk on the phone while driving, and a third admit to reading texts and emails while behind the wheel.

"We're talking about human behavior combined with the marketplace, said McNaull, the AAA spokesman. "That makes for a real challenge for policymakers and all of us."