Automobile voice command systems can contribute to distracted driving

People have taken automobile road trips almost since the car was invented. In the US, Europe, and at many other locations, driving vacations are often the best way to experience a country. According to the US Travel Association, nearly eight in ten (79 percent) vacation trips in the US are by automobile.

As I reported in October, in 6 road-trip tips about distracted driving and safety, the use of the many communication, environmental and entertainment options in today’s cars can lead to distracted driving, which has become a serious problem and can end a driving vacation tragically.

Their use, which sometimes requires endless fiddling and adjustments, can be highly distracting to the driver and that’s a serious potential problem for anyone, even drivers who try to pay strict attention to their driving. According to studies, it’s estimated that distracted driving contributes to 16 percent of all fatal crashes, which leads to about 5,000 deaths on US roads each year.

There is data emerging from studies like the AAA study published last year, which examined distracted driving in detail, that the causes for distracted driving include the very automobile-based voice command systems meant to be a major part of the distracted driving solution.

The need to take one’s eyes off the road, look at and adjust environmental, entertainment and communication controls, can be a distraction to drivers even if everything works perfectly.

In cars today, the features for environmental systems and their controls are numerous and complex. Entertainment systems offer choices to run satellite radio, AM and FM, play CDs, tapes, and connected MP3 players, and make audio choices by channel, disk, track, album, song, etc.

The ability to have your car control driver cellphones hands-free is becoming commonplace. Cars can read and control the phone’s contact list, make and receive phone calls and, in some cases, allow text messages to be viewed, and even answered, without ever needing to touch or look at the phone itself.

To run these systems, cars have a myriad of buttons, dials, switches, touch screens, dashboard mice, etc. Many cars also have elaborate voice control systems with multiple menus, and a complex command structure to control systems. The voice command systems are supposed to eliminate the need to look at the systems’ controls and physically manipulate them.

Unfortunately, as I have found first hand, it appears that the implementation of many of these automobile voice command systems has had an unintended consequence. Instead of reducing distracted driving, it’s increased it.

According to the AAA study, some activities, including using a cellphone hands-free in autos, or using a voice command system to control automobile systems, place a high mental workload on drivers. Also, the effect of frustration when automobile voice command systems can’t understand the driver, or don’t work as intended or are overly complex, increases and causes the driver’s level of distracted driving to increase.

I found that to be the case when I’ve used these systems in a number of cars.

For example, in the last several months I’ve driven a small SUV, the Acura RDX, as a loaner in the US.

The auto’s phenomenal navigation system includes real time traffic information. It has a voice command system that enables the driver to set in a destination and make a change in routing on the fly. Unfortunately, as in many other brands, it regularly gets certain letters wrong, so they aren’t even on the list of choices to spell out a destination. Once, I had to delete a letter and retry the system eight times before I got the right one.

Every time the voice system didn’t work right it took more time away from watching the road and concentrating on traffic.

The RDX has a hands-free phone system which is a snap to link to most cellphones. When I had an RDX loaner I quickly linked it to my phone and uploaded my phonebook to it. Then the frustration with the system restrictions set in. Unlike when the car was motionless, when I tried to scroll through the phonebook when the car was moving I couldn’t turn to a new page of numbers more three times by voice command, so I often couldn’t locate the phone I needed for my call. Like many frustrated drivers, when I had to make a call, I found myself pulling out my phone a few times to dial the number directly, raising my level of distraction.

The entertainment system, which allows me to scroll through every one of the more than 3,000 songs on my connected iPod, has no such voice command limitation when the car is moving.

I’ve asked Acura why they restrict the hands-free phone system so severely, but don’t restrict the entertainment system at all. They had no answer. It makes no sense to me, and from personal experience it’s clear to me their voice command design, like other car manufacturers, needs a substantial redesign and improved reliability to actually reduce distracted driving.

(Image: “On the Road,” Copyright © 2014 NSL Photography, All Rights Reserved)