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Hands-free tech still poses high risk for drivers

Lucas Mearian and Matt Hamblen | June 13, 2013
AAA wants tech companies to limit what their in-car, hands-free systems can do

Hands-free technologies, such as Apple's iOS for car displays, that allow drivers to text, talk on their phone or even use Facebook while driving, are still dangerous mental distractions, according to findings released today.

The findings, from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, revealed that even when drivers keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, the mental workload from hands-free tech distracts and slows their reaction times.

With a predicted five-fold increase in infotainment systems in new vehicles by 2018, AAA is calling for action as result of its research.

The three levels of driving distraction from hands-free technology

AAA urged the automotive and electronics industries to explore limiting voice-activated technology to driving-related activities, such as temperature control or windshield wipers, to reduce mental distractions.

The organization also recommended disabling certain functions of voice-to-text technologies, such as using social media, e-mail or texting, so that they are inoperable while the vehicle is in motion.

"There is a looming public safety crisis ahead with the future proliferation of these in-vehicle technologies," AAA CEO Robert Darbelnet said in a statement. "It's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free."

On Monday, during its World Wide Developer Conference, Apple announced it would be extending its iOS displays, like that of the iPad, to in-car displays. About 95% of cars sold today have voice-activated, integrated music playback and control from an iOS device, Apple said.

"But we want to take this integration to a whole new level," Eddy Cue, chief of Internet Software and Service at Apple, said during a keynote at the WWDC Monday. "What if you could get iOS on the screen that is built into your car... so that you could make phone calls, play music, go to maps or get your i-messages right on the screen of your car eyes free using Siri."

Cue said the following car manufacturers would be introducing iOS features in 2014: Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, Ford, Chevy, Lexus, Kia, Mitsubishi, Volvo, Acura, Jaguar.

But, according to AAA, using voice-activated interfaces compromises a driver's brain function, resulting in drivers who scan the road less and miss visual cues, which could result in drivers not seeing items right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians.

The research was performed by cognitive distraction expert David Strayer at the University of Utah. Strayer and his research team measured brainwaves, eye movement and other metrics to assess what happens to drivers' mental workload when they attempt to perform multiple tasks at once.


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