Digital Assistants Sap Drivers’ Attention

Up to 27 seconds of residual distraction trails use of digital assistant software and infotainment systems in automobiles, theUniversity of Utah reported Thursday.

The report on distracted driving, done for theAAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, follows a similar set of studies conducted last year by the organizations that concluded that infotainment systems distract drivers when they’re using them on the road.

This time around, the researchers looked at the aftereffects of driving while using infotainment systems, the ones native to automobile, and digital assistant apps on mobile devices.

A lot of drivers commonly use their voices to dictate text messages and place calls while driving, said Joel Cooper, research assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah.

Distraction can persist long after a driver has stopped interacting with digital assistant software and other voice-controlled systems, he told TechNewsWorld.

“Even when they’re done with those interactions, there’s a measurable amount of attention that’s still directed to those activities long after those activities are done,” Cooper said. “We found that up to 27 seconds after people terminated a text message, we could still measure the distraction from that prior activity.”

The researchers conducted two studies. One looked at the impact on attention caused by use of digital assistant software, such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, while the other examined the level of distraction caused by native in-car infotainment systems.

Numbers Tell the Story

With this latest set of studies, the researchers used a scale they developed from last year’s research. The five-point scale defines 1 as mild distraction, 2 as moderate distraction, 3 as high distraction, 4 as very high distraction, and 5 as maximum distraction.

To orient the public, the researchers offered up handheld calling as a 2.5 and hands-free calling as a 2.3. Listening to an audiobook was rated 1.7, and rocking to the radio was rated 1.2.

Here’s how some of the tested infotainment systems scored: Buick Lacrosse with IntelliLink, 2.4; Chevy Equinox with MyLink, 2.4; Toyota 4Runner with Entune, 2.9; Ford Taurus with Sync MyFord Touch, 3.1; Chevy Malibu with MyLink, 3.4; Volkswagen Passat with Car-Net, 3.5; Nissan Altima with NissanConnect, 3.7; Chrysler 200c with Uconnect, 3.8; Hyundai Sonata with Blue Link, 3.8; and Mazda 6 with Connect, 4.6.

This is how digital assistant apps on mobile devices were rated, with the first number related to voice-commanded calling and the second regarding dictated text messaging: Google Now, 3.0 and 3.3; Apple’s Siri, 3.4 and 3.7; and Microsoft’s Cortana, 3.8 and 4.1.

Developers and publishers of digital assistant apps discourage the use of such software while driving.

Google has been encouraging users to leverage Android Auto in cars instead of Google Now, according to a statement shared with TechNewsWorld by Google spokesperson Krisztina Radosavljevic-Szilagyi.

“The Google app helps people get things done on their phone faster by just speaking to Google, but is not specifically designed for driving,” Google said. “Android Auto has been designed from the ground up to help reduce distraction while driving.”

Meanwhile, Apple has been working with its CarPlay platform and reportedly has been building out its automotive team for bigger ambitions that infotainment.

Microsoft has been working with auto manufacturers for more than a decade, aiding in the development of infotainment systems for Ford and others.

Accounting for Age and Experience

Some of the infotainment system scores varied by model, leaving researcher with the suspicions that vehicle ergonomics and factors such as road noise played into the level of distraction created.

Beyond the software and conditions, the Utah-AAA researchers examined the roles age and experience played into the level of distraction caused by using hands-free platforms.

Older adults had a more difficult time with the technology, the researchers found.

“They showed increased level of distraction and inattention associated with using these technologies,” the University of Utah’s Cooper said. “They would dictate a message to their phones in the same way that the younger drivers would, but the attentional costs of that were much greater for older adults than younger.”

To gauge how experience factored into their findings, the researchers looked at drivers who practiced with hands-free software for at least a week. They noticed improvement in the motorists’ ability to the use the software, and it reduced the amount of effort required to operate it, said Cooper.

However, systems that were difficult and demanding to begin with were still tough and tedious after a bit of practice.

“So bad systems don’t magically turn into good systems with practice,” said Cooper. “They’re still bad.”

Quinten Plummer is a longtime technology reporter and an avid PC gamer who explored local news for a few years, covering law enforcement and government beats, before returning to writing about things run by ones and zeros and the people who make them. If it pushes pixels or improves lives, he wants to learn all he can about it.

1 Comment

  • I have many issues with digital information systems in vehicles. First off is the safety issue of having to focus to much on inputting information.

    Second is the cost of maintaining, upgrading software and it becoming out dated. Third is cost of replacement and benefit over more simplistic knobs and switches. I don’t think many vehicle owners realize the integration in a digital information system. The problem is, that if you have issues and don’t fix them with these digital systems. You end up losing many functions from HVAC systems, radio, driver features and even possibly some power train features. The complexity of these systems are going to cost some owners a lot of grief and money down the road.

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