Drive, e-mail, surf, tweet, post -- too much?
Stakes high in distracted-driving debate
In-car voice commands may keep your eyes on the road. But do they keep your head in the game?
Even though voice-command technology is increasingly popular and regulators tacitly supported hands-free phoning in February in their proposed guidelines to combat distracted driving, the future of the connected car is far from settled.
And as automakers strive to reduce distraction, there's no consensus on what hands-free features should be allowed, or what's going too far.
Automakers keep pushing the boundaries of what's possible. General Motors, for instance, is testing an application that will allow drivers to dictate status updates to Facebook.
Other car companies make it possible to search the Web, check traffic, look up directions and get restaurant ratings -- all through using voice-recognition software.
One of the biggest questions: How many bells, whistles, gizmos and functions eventually will be allowed by federal regulators?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's proposed guidelines, released Feb. 16, say using a hands-free phone doesn't cause any observable increase in accidents. So the guidelines, which cover center-stack controls and screens within the driver's view and reach, left automakers free, for now, to pursue voice commands.
The agency says it's still studying the risks of mobile electronics in cars, including voice commands. The results are expected late this year.
Automakers acknowledge driver distraction is real. But they say they can't prevent drivers from bringing smartphones into the car. So they're rushing to load up vehicles with what they say is a safer alternative to using hand-held devices for calling and texting.
The connected car is becoming increasingly wired, whether through smartphone apps or through a direct vehicle connection to the Internet.
The safer alternatives include systems, such as Ford Motor Co.'s Sync, that allow drivers to make calls, listen to text messages and have Twitter feeds read to them out loud without having to touch their phones.
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Entune allows drivers to perform Web searches, call up directions and look up traffic, weather, fuel prices and stock quotes with voice commands. Eventually, Toyota hopes to expand voice technology to all connected-car apps, allowing drivers to buy movie tickets and make restaurant reservations using voice software, said spokesman Greg Thome.
Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says the trade group's guidelines for voice-operated features are "still under development" and the topic warrants more research.
"It's hard to know what cognitive impact things have on the driver," Newton said. "There is a fundamental difference between, 'Honey, I'm going to be late' and, 'Honey, I'm going to be late because I'm seeing the divorce lawyer.'"
Automakers forge ahead
In the meantime, some automakers are establishing their own internal guidelines on what's safe.
Hyundai Motor Co., for instance, allows drivers using Blue Link, its in-car infotainment system, to send outbound texts through its voice recognition software, said Barry Ratzlaff, the company's director of service business development. But incoming texts are avoided because they're deemed too mentally distracting, he said.
"We want to minimize the dialogue," Ratzlaff added. "If it is necessary to open a dialogue, then we'd encourage someone to use the hands-free calling feature."
Other automakers, such as Ford and Chrysler, promote features that read incoming texts and other messages to the driver as selling points. General Motors will soon offer similar technology.
Scott Geisler, an engineering manager in GM's product safety group, said voice technology is still maturing. Advances such as recognition of natural speech, not just memorized command, will help further reduce distractions in the future.
But Geisler also stressed the need for research into mental distraction -- the act of splitting one's attention to perform more than one task -- and a more universal set of standards.
"Cognitive distraction, it's a phenomenon that's real," he added. "What's the impact on the driver? How do you measure it? You can do it in a lab, but in the real-world environment, it's difficult to understand the actual effects."
Ditlow: No phones, period
Some safety advocates, including the National Traffic Safety Board, want regulators to take a zero-tolerance approach.
In December, the NTSB's chairman, Deborah Hersman, pressed for a nationwide ban on all mobile electronics behind the wheel, including those operated hands-free.
The independent agency, charged with investigating traffic crashes, will hold a forum on March 27 in Washington to discuss the perils of distracted driving.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, also is an advocate for an all-out ban. His group believes hands-free features are just as dangerous as hand-held devices, and in 2007 it petitioned NHTSA to force automakers to disable cell phones in cars.
He likened hands-free technology to smoking low-tar cigarettes. "The lesser of two evils is still not a good social norm," he said.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has given mixed signals on the safety of hands-free features. In December, responding to the NTSB recommendations, he came out strong in defense of voice technologies, saying: "The problem is not hands-free."
But when asked about it in February, LaHood said his agency is waiting on the results of the study now under way on mental distraction before making a final determination.