Advances in tech mean we can be more efficient, commanding our phone to perform tasks with our voice. We may think that because we’re not using our hands to interact with our phone we’re able to drive safely. But a recent study has shown just the opposite. We can become even more distracted from driving when we’re using our voice to command our phones.
We already know that driving while texting is dangerous, but we may think that driving while using our phones hands-free offers us safety. But how we use our phones hands-free can have a major impact on our level of distraction.
Voice Command Advancements
Our phones are becoming more advanced, allowing us to use our voices instead of our fingers to operate them. We can dictate to our phone to send text and email messages, tweet, post to Facebook and much more. Our phones can read responses so we can carry out conversations without ever laying a finger on the screen.
Certain Android phones allow you to say, “Hey Google” or “Ok Google” to command tasks using your voice. See, Yahoo, 9 Things You May Not Have Known About Google Now.
An update in iOS 8 allows us to give Siri commands any time your phone is plugged in to a power source, just by saying, “Hey Siri” without you actually touching the phone.
Settings => General => Siri => Turn Allow “Hey Siri” On
But while our phones can make performing these tasks hands-free, they don’t make performing these tasks brain-free. Our focus is still on the phone when we make these commands.
Voice-Command Driving Study
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of Utah recently released two reports showing the impact of using technology on driving skills. While many places have outlawed talking on cell phones with the exception of hands-free driving, a bigger danger may be drivers performing complex tasks hands-free. Though our phones have made great advances in processing data, our brains have not. Our ability to multi-task, combining tech with driving, hasn’t progressed at the same pace.
In two reports, the organizations studied the level of mental distraction presented by driving while using hands-free technology. While driving, participants were required to perform tasks that ranged from the simple, such as listening to the radio, to the complex, such as using voice commands to dial a 10-digit phone number and updating their Facebook and Twitter status. All tasks were completed by voice, allowing drivers to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the steering wheel.
The studies monitored participants’ heart rate and reaction time while driving and performing these tasks to determine the level of distraction technology presented. A control group without monitoring devices was also studied to determine whether the monitoring devices were a factor in distracting the drivers.
You can read the full reports here: Mental Workload of Common Voice-Based Vehicle Interactions across Six Different Vehicle Systems and Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile II: Assessing In-Vehicle Voice-Based Interactive Technologies.
The study examined both the use of hands-free cell phones and in-car “infotainment” systems that respond to the drivers’ voice commands. Researchers equipped cars with a Bluetooth-connected smartphone with Internet access and voice-command capabilities. The phones were not physically accessible by the participants, all commands were conveyed via voice.
Researchers also compared in-car voice recognition systems with perfect interpretation of voice commands against Siri. Although the studies were conducted prior to the release of iOS 8, the researchers worked with Apple to use a customized version of Siri. Drivers were able to activate the service with the command, “Hello Siri,” similar to the “Hey Siri” feature now available in iOS 8.
Participants were monitored with cameras, heart-rate monitors and a detection-response device to measure physical responses while driving. They were given an opportunity to become familiar with the technology as well as the roads before they started driving.
The drivers were then instructed to drive while performing voice-activated commands, including listening to and responding to text messages, updating their status on Facebook and Twitter, and reviewing and modifying calendar appointments. The mental workload of these tasks was compared with that of having a conversation with a passenger in the car, listening to the radio and listening to an audiobook.
The studies found that giving speech-to-text commands was the most mentally demanding type of task, exceeding all listening tasks. “Results obtained in this investigation indicate that simple auditory-vocal interactions with vehicles may significantly elevate mental workload in drivers.” Tasks such as listening to the radio or an audiobook were much less demanding than complex tasks such as dialing a phone number or updating a status on Facebook.
Researchers rated driving alone using no tech as a baseline score of 1, compared to the following types of distractions:
- Radio 1.21
- Audiobooks 1.75
- Hands-free cell phone 2.27
- Passenger in the car 2.33
- Hand-held cell phone 2.45
- Speech-to-text commands 3.08
- Siri 4.15
Researchers concluded that Siri rated the highest for distractions because of the complex nature of the tasks that can be performed and because of the inaccuracies in interpretation of commands. “Siri scored more than a full point higher on the workload rating scale (4.15), and this likely reflects the added complexity when the voice-recognition system is less than perfect.”
The distraction level increased significantly when Siri erred in interpreting the voice command. When the command was misinterpreted, the driver’s attention was focused much more on the technology than the driving. The study stated, “a significant element of cognitive load during voice interaction is driven by system errors.”
The accuracy of the voice interpretation had a greater impact on driver distraction than the number of steps required to complete the task. The study found that simple commands could still be distracting if there were comprehension errors, while complex tasks achieved without comprehension errors were less distracting.
The study concluded that simple and accurate voice commands have the potential to reduce driver distraction. The report stated that “it is clear that voice interactions can be made sufficiently simple and accurate to reduce cognitive demand in the vehicle to levels approaching the widely accepted tasks of listening to the radio or a book on tape.”
Researchers cautioned, however, that complex voice commands would continue to be distracting, even with complete accuracy: “it is unlikely that the ratings of these voice-recognition systems would drop below 3, the level we obtained with a perfect speech recognition system.”
See also, AAA Cognitive Distraction Fact Sheet for more information on the impact of technology on driving.
As technological advancements allow us to do more with our phones without even touching them, we should be mindful that our primary task when driving is to arrive safely. Keep distractions to a minimum by using voice commands for simple tasks. If your phone or car isn’t accurate in interpreting your voice commands, realize the potential for significant distraction and wait until you are no longer driving to perform the task.
Remember the adage that applies to all parts of life, “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
Were you surprised at any part of the study? Have you ever had your voice commands misinterpreted by your phone? Do you find using tech to be distracting when you drive? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below!
* Jesus Saves courtesy of forester401 via Flickr and Creative Commons
** Autumn Stream (edited) courtesy of Art G. via Flickr and Creative Commons