Design and Testing Keys to Solving Auto Tech Distraction, Says TRL

All in-cabin automotive technology has the capability to dangerously distract the modern motorist.

This is the clear finding of the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) whose research into the dangers of using hands-free smartphone communication while driving is just the tip of an increasingly large human-machine interface iceberg. Speaking to TU-Automotive, TRL’s Dr Shaun Helman said the problems of driver distraction have been around for a very long time. Helman said: “The basic findings show that even just talking can be distracting and we have known that for decades. However, if you have additional technology in the vehicle the simple fact is that if you don’t design the way the driver interacts with that along good design and human factors principles then you can end up with more distraction.

“Just because something is voice activated doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be distracting. There are good reasons to think that if you design voice activated systems well you could certainly have them less distracting than, say, talking on the phone to someone.”

However, Helman said remote communication has a far more distracting effect on drivers than passengers chatting in the seat next to them. He explained: “Of course, there is more and more technology coming into vehicles that people need either to talk to or interact with in some way and that produces similar issues. If you are talking about people interacting in the car, that’s a slightly different thing. Because when you are talking to passengers they tend to be aware about what’s going on with the vehicle to some degree. So, they are not surprised when the driver stops talking because they need to pay attention to something happening on the road. The difficulty with remote communication through mobile phone, the person is not in the vehicle and doesn’t know what’s going on in the car.”

AI savvy voice assistants

With so much talk around AI’s involvement in auto technology these days, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that future voice assistants may be made aware of what the vehicle is about to face and what conditions the driver will have to cope with to moderate conversation in the same way a human passengers would. Yet, for the here-and-now, Helman said carmakers and tier suppliers have to embark on adequate HMI testing to ensure any new technology they install keeps distraction to a minimum. He said: “With systems that have been built into car, what it’s all about is conducting good user testing and good design. You can test reasonably objectively the distraction involving a specific piece of technology because there are measures for if a piece of equipment requires you to look at it, you can measure how long people have to glance away from the road.”

Helman concluded that, ultimately, the decision on auto technology distraction is something that society in general will have to consider as whole. He added: “The issue is whether society thinks it’s acceptable and most reasonable people would say it’s acceptable to glance away from the road for something that is relevant for the journey but it’s about making sure there’s no excessive mental effort in using that technology. So if you’re turning cruise control on and off you don’t want that to be a complex menu based system where people have to take their eyes off the road and be thinking really complex thoughts about how they are going to use that system. They want a simple button. It’s all about minimizing eyes of the road, mind off the road and hands off the wheel.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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