Driver distraction: The battle over in-car apps

Driver distraction: The battle over in-car apps

In the rush to bring infotainment to the car, some experts charge, the telematics industry is downplaying research that shows in-car infotainment leads to driver distraction—and that driver distraction imperils safety.

Accidents involving texting have shown the potential for mayhem on the roads if drivers' attention is diverted.

Certainly, no one is ignoring the issue, but some charge that no one is taking it seriously enough, either.

Many subscribe to the theory that, as long as a driver has ‘eyes on the road, hands on the wheel,’ he's not distracted.

Unfortunately, the brain doesn't work that way, according to David Strayer of the University of Utah's Applied Cognition Lab, who has been doing tests of driver distraction for 10 years.

The brain and distraction

Humans use the same parts of the brain for a variety of different activities, all of which contribute to what's called cognitive load.

When the cognitive load gets too heavy, our brains can slow down, just as a computer does when it's performing several tasks at once.

For example, a 2001 study by another researcher found that listening and responding to email while driving reduced drivers' reaction time by 30 percent.
Strayer's research shows that voice commands and audio feedback from cars can be just as distracting as texting.

In fact, sometimes a speech interface can be more distracting, according to a study by the US National Safety Council. (For an overview of the state of speech recognition interfaces, see ‘Telematics and speech recognition: Finally ready for prime time?’.)

“Most people can recognize when they are visually or mechanically distracted and seek to disengage from these activities as quickly as possible,” the paper noted.
“However, people typically do not realize when they are cognitively distracted, such as taking part in a phone conversation; therefore, the risk lasts much, much longer.”

Paul Green, a research professor in the University of Michigan's Driver Interface Group, has a simple rule: “If a task takes more than 15 seconds to complete while parked, it should not be performed while driving.”

This doesn't mean Strayer or Green think all car apps should be banned.
Getting clear and unambiguous audio warnings when there's a hazard, like a deflating tire or blockage on the road, can make driving safer.

“We try to separate things that are relevant to the mission of driving and things that are entertainment related,” Strayer says.

To ban or not to ban?

To address the increasing importance of apps and content to consumers even when they're in the driver's seat, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has developed Driver Focus Design Guidelines.

The Alliance notes that overall traffic fatalities continue to decline thanks to safety innovations developed even without government mandates.

But there is a movement to create some of those mandates.

Oprah Winfrey wants a ban on the use of mobile devices in the car.

After analyzing more than 50 peer-reviewed research reports, the US National Safety Council is calling for a ban on any cell phone use while driving.

US Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood has said it's his goal to eliminate all mobile devices in vehicles, telling the media, “New technologies do not fit with my high standard of zero distractions in vehicles, period.”

There's an entire government website devoted to the issue, at Distraction.Gov, and Secretary LaHood has an active blog that he uses to rally the troops.

Consumer groups are also onboard for a ban. Focus Driven is a non-profit led by a Jennifer Smith, whose mother was killed by a distracted driver.

“The battle for having no cell phone use in cars is definitely not lost,” Smith insists.

Moreover, Focus Driven also is working toward banning services like Ford SYNC. “I don't understand why being constantly connected is more important than being alive,” she says.

Telematics and safety

Automakers will have to respond to these criticisms as well as to the science showing how distracting apps can be.

“The expertise needed to solve these problems is around,” the University of Michigan's Green says. “There are lots of human factors experts out there.”
But, he notes, smaller manufacturers and application developers often don't have on-staff human factors, ergonomics, and usability professionals.

These safety concerns could spell opportunity for some sectors.

For example, Strayer has also found that haptic signals for navigation are more easily noticed and followed by drivers than audio commands.

So a carmaker offering this kind of interface could differentiate itself with safety claims backed up by science. (For more on telematics solutions to distraction, see ‘How telematics can help prevent driver distraction’.)

Some OEMS have already begun to market anti-distraction features.

Mercedes-Benz is offering SplitView on some 2011 models, a display technology that lets driver and front-seat passenger view different, task-appropriate content on the same screen.

BMW is touting its ConnectedDrive as loaded with safety features, melding warnings such as lane-change alerts with anti-distraction features including a heads-up display that overlays information on the windshield, so the driver's eyes don't stray from the road.

Global Mobile Alert launched a new Android smartphone app that uses a variety of audible signals to alert drivers to traffic lights, railroad crossings, and school zones, warning them when they break the speed limit.

And Ford announced it would provide a ‘do not disturb’ button for its MyFord Touch-equipped vehicles in 2011, featuring content lockouts to encourage use of voice control.

For more on speech and haptic interfaces, order Telematics Update’s must-read ‘Human-Machine Interface Report’ today.

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

To learn more about "Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2010 Conference", November 30th -December 1st, San Diego, CA, click here.

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