Many drivers think that it’s safer to use a voice-controlled assistant like Cortana or Siri while driving, instead of directly interacting with my phone. But a pair of new studies about voice-controlled assistants and in-car hands-free systems are still “very distracting, very error prone and very frustrating to use.”
The studies were conducted by University of Utah psychologists for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. One tested how distracted drivers were using Siri, Cortana, and Google Now in the car. The other tested a range of ten different in-car entertainment systems controlled by voice commands. More than 300 subjects in total were asked to drive around a 4km loop through Salt Lake City and use the systems, controlling music, sending messages, and making calls. The researchers would flash a little red light in their peripheral vision, asking them to press a button on their thumbs when they noticed the light — thus giving them an indication of how closely they were paying attention:
Now, it’s no surprise that interacting with a screen, even using your voice, is distracting. But the shocking thing is just how distracting. Drivers took up to 27 seconds to start paying full attention to the road again. Some systems did better than others: Google Now was less distracting than Siri and Cortana respectively. Chevy’s Equinox did best of all the in-car systems, while the Mazda 6 had the absolute worst.
But in the end, every system had a moderate level of distraction. And the psychologists behind the research say that it’s proof that these systems need further study and better design before they’re ubiquitous. “The voice-command technology isn’t ready,” said one co-author, Joel Cooper, in a statement. “It’s in the cars and is billed as a safe alternative to manual interactions with your car, but the voice systems simply don’t work well enough.”
This research was done for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Study, a non-profit with a mission of making drivers safer. It doesn’t mean that these systems won’t improve — but rather that they’re in their infancy, and we should be extremely cautious when using them while driving. In fact, the legibility and usability of UI is an emerging field of science unto itself.
But in the meantime, the thing about being distracted is that it’s all but impossible to self-police. You’re not thinking about the potential dangers, you’re thinking about the call, the text, or just the next song.