Toyota, Hyundai Ace AAA's Distracted Driving Study; Mercedes, Ford, Apple Fare Poorly

October 7, 2014

The National Transportation Safety Board may have been right all along, and former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood may have to eat a little crow. That's because the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has released data from a new study that confirms what the NTSB and others have already claimed -- namely, that hands-free calls can be just as distracting as those made while drivers hold a device.

However, the news isn't all bad for developers. The Foundation also says that although today's systems are intrusive, they can be improved so that they're not distracting.

MEASURING COGNITIVE DISTRACTION IN THE VEHICLE 

AAA partnered with Dr. David Strayer and his colleagues from the University of Utah to conduct the study, which was entitled "Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Vehicle". Strayer & Co. used an array of cars equipped with voice-activated systems from numerous automakers, including Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and Toyota. Study participants were fitted with heart-rate monitors and other devices to track their reaction times while they drove those vehicles and used the voice systems.

Based on the subjects' performance, Strayer's team graded tasks according to how distracting they were, using a five-tiered rating system. For example, listening to the radio was considered a category 1 distraction, while talking on a cell phone was rated a category 2 (regardless of whether the call was made using a handheld or hands-free device). Composing texts and emails with a voice-to-text program was determined to be a category 3 distraction, and unfortunately for Apple, interfacing with Siri was classed as a category 4. 

But that was only half the fun. The team then put participants into various cars and had them interact with an array of manual and voice-activated systems. Specifically, they asked participants to change radio stations and make calls via voice dialing.

The team then measured the results, and they discovered that some automakers' systems were far less distracting than others. Here are the major takeaways:

  • As you can see from the graphic above, Toyota's Entune system was the least distracting for drivers, at a rating of 1.7 -- about as distracting as listening to an audio book. Coming in at #2 was Hyundai's Blue Link (2.2), followed by Chrysler's Uconnect (2.7), Ford's SYNC (3.0), Mercedes-Benz's COMAND (3.1), and most distracting of all, Chevrolet's MyLink, rated a 3.7.
  • Systems with poor speech recognition skills were far more distracting than their "smarter" peers. At worst, they constituted an average category 3-level distraction. 
  • Perhaps not surprisingly, the researchers found that composing text messages and emails was far more distracting than listening to those messages read aloud. The former was classed a category 3 distraction, while the latter was a category 2. 

Though it might seem as if this study proves once and for all that a distraction is a distraction, no matter what form it might take, AAA says that it also shows which shortcomings in voice-activated systems pose the most danger for drivers. In turn, that helps developers know what to fix first.

As AAA's CEO, Bob Darbelnet explains: "We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead. We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction."

OUR TAKE

As valuable as the AAA Foundation's findings are, we can't say that they're surprising. As anyone who's ever "zoned out" while driving knows, a task doesn't have to be physical to be a distraction. We've seen this proven in numerous other studies.

As far as practical implications go, it's unlikely that this will lead directly to an outright ban on hands-free devices or voice-activated systems. However, we hope it will give automakers the data they need to build better systems down the line.

To read the AAA Foundation's complete report, click here.

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