Test: Voice controls work for older drivers
For automakers eager to lend high-tech appeal to their vehicles, one big question is how to coax older motorists to use voice technology to operate infotainment systems.
According to conventional wisdom, technology-averse drivers will try voice technology once or twice, then avoid it if the system doesn't work at first.
Well, Agero Inc. has some good news for the industry. This summer the Medford, Mass., telematics provider tested the ability of motorists 65 to 75 years old to operate a voice-activated navigation system while driving.
"They did very well," said Thomas Schalk, Agero's vice president of voice technology. "Speech helped the elderly drivers more than the younger ones."
It would be foolish to draw sweeping conclusions from a field test involving a small sample group. And Agero, which provides infotainment services to Hyundai, Toyota, Infiniti and others, is not a disinterested research outfit.
Agero organized 24 drivers into two test groups: motorists 65 to 75 years old and those who were 18 to 30 years old.
Subjects were asked to enter addresses and other destinations while driving vehicles up to 45 mph between sets of traffic cones on a closed road course in Blacksburg, Va.
They tried three types of systems:
A unit to which the driver talked, and the system talked back.
A unit to which the driver talked and the system responded with talk and text on a screen.
An aftermarket unit that required drivers to use their fingers to punch in destinations on a small screen.
The voice-only version was a production version of an Agero system, while the voice-and-text version was a preproduction prototype designed by Agero.
The aftermarket unit turned out to be the stinker. It was a hand-held unit mounted on the dashboard.
While using it, older motorists were six times more likely to veer out of their lanes than the young drivers. But older motorists improved dramatically when they used a voice-only system or a voice-plus-simple-text unit, Schalk said.
The aftermarket unit "was a huge problem for older drivers," said Schalk.
After the tests, the older motorists were asked whether they would want to have voice-activated infotainment in their cars. Most said yes.
The trick is to make the system intuitive. And that's where natural language will prove useful.
The Apple iPhone and Google's Android phones have demonstrated the appeal of voice technology activated by ordinary language, rather than a memorized menu of commands.
Automakers are working to incorporate natural language into infotainment systems.
In June, Apple indicated that as many as nine automakers were willing to make their infotainment systems compatible with Apple's Siri voice technology.
Agero's road test suggests that those efforts will benefit older drivers as well as kids.
"Natural language is coming," Schalk said. "But these systems need to be easy to use. When you get in a taxi, you can say, 'Take me to the Marriott Hotel,' and that takes just a few seconds. The voice systems in cars aren't there -- yet."
You can reach David Sedgwick at email@example.com.