Is Apple’s Siri Unsafe for Drivers?

Source: Thinkstock

Most of us have probably experienced firsthand the danger that distracted drivers can present. From people drifting into your lane on the highway because they were fiddling with their radio, to someone nearly rear ending you as they try to send a text in stop-and-go traffic, distracted driving leads to thousands of accidents each year. According to Distraction.gov, the U.S. government’s website dedicated to distracted driving issues, nearly half a million people are injured and thousands more are killed as a result of distracted driving each year. While distracted driving can be caused by any number of activities, as noted by Distraction.gov, “Texting is the most alarming distraction because it involves manual, visual, and cognitive distraction simultaneously.”

While it’s no surprise that taking your eyes off the road to send a text can be a dangerous distraction, some drivers may be surprised to learn that even using hands-free, voice-activated controls can be dangerous. Thanks to advances in voice-recognition software, many smartphones and in-vehicle infotainment systems now rely primarily on hands-free voice-activated controls that are generally touted as being safer than traditional hand-operated controls. However, according to a recent University of Utah study cited by AAA, most of the hands-free systems that are currently on the market actually increase “mental distraction.”

“Technologies used in the car that rely on voice communications may have unintended consequences that adversely affect road safety,” stated Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “The level of distraction and the impact on safety can vary tremendously based on the task or the system the driver is using.”

Source: Apple.com

Besides testing multiple built-in systems used by various carmakers, the researchers also tested Siri, Apple’s voice-activated personal assistant that is used with its iOS mobile operating system. According to University of Utah researchers “hands- and eyes-free use of Apple’s Siri generated a relatively high category 4 level of mental distraction” on a five-point scale. Siri’s rating was worse than any of the six built-in systems tested by the researchers, which included Toyota’s Entune (1.7), Chevrolet’s MyLink (3.7), Hyundai’s Blue Link (2.2), Chrysler’s Uconnect (2.7), Ford’s SYNC with MyFord Touch (3.0), and Mercedes’ COMAND (3.1).

Of course, Siri is not specifically designed for in-vehicle use like the other systems are and researchers pointed out that Apple’s personal digital assistant was “separately assessed.” Still, in a statement given to the Wall Street Journal, Apple criticized the study for failing to evaluate its car-optimized versions of Siri. “CarPlay and Siri Eyes Free intuitively use your vehicle’s native controls so you don’t need to pick-up and look at your phone while driving,” Apple told WSJ. “These experiences are tailored so you only have access to iPhone apps that are optimized for the car and make sense for an in-vehicle experience.”

While Apple may have a legitimate gripe about the study not evaluating CarPlay or Siri Eyes Free, it should be noted that researchers came to their conclusions about Apple’s Siri without ever picking up or using an iPhone while driving. On the other hand, if the researchers had tested a version of Siri that was integrated with the car’s system, it may have achieved a higher level of accuracy when it came to understanding users’ voice commands. Results of the study showed that “The accuracy of voice recognition software significantly influences the rate of distraction.” Since background noise can make it harder for a voice-recognition system to understand a user’s commands, a system that relies on a vehicle’s built-in microphones that may be better positioned or designed specifically to filter out background noise would likely perform better in this respect.

However, regardless of the uneven comparison between built-in voice-activated systems and Apple’s Siri, the study’s conclusions still appear to hold true: Even voice-activated controls can cause drivers to be dangerously distracted. Fortunately, as pointed about by AAA, developers of voice-activated systems can reduce the likelihood that a driver will get distracted by eliminating complexity, improving accuracy, and reducing the time it takes a system to complete a task.

“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,” noted AAA CEO Bob Darbelnet. “We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction. It is clear that not all voice systems are created equal, and today’s imperfect systems can lead to driver distraction. AAA is confident that it will be possible to make safer systems in the future.”

For Apple, making Siri safer for drivers may mean eliminating some of the features that are currently available in CarPlay and Siri Eyes Free. According to Apple, CarPlay allows users to dictate responses to emails and texts via voice commands. Unfortunately, the University of Utah’s study found that composing text messages and emails was one of the more distracting activities (category 3) for drivers to do with a voice-activated system. While it remains to be seen if this study will lead Apple to make changes to its in-vehicle device integration systems, it is clear that this issue is not going away anytime soon. According to ABI Research, “shipments of connected in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems equipped with one or more smartphone integration technologies will grow substantially during the next five years to reach 35.1 million units globally by 2018.”

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

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