What’s the Future of “Hands- Free” Devices and Will They Be Safe?

By: Brandon Sowash

Intern, Dominion Dealer Solutions

We all know that texting and driving are strictly prohibited and even illegal in most states, but vehicle manufacturers seem to have fixed that problem by integrating with hands free devices. The real question is “Are these hands- free devices safe?” We’ll review some reasons why there is so much debate about this very issue.

“Hands-free is not risk-free, even though three out of four motorists believe it is,” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “We know now that devices like voice-to-email systems can create substantial mental distractions, which can lead to degradation of driving performance.”

But when it comes to drivers, opinions are split.  The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety states that  while 66% of licensed drivers agree that the use of hand-held cell phones is unacceptable; 56% say hands-free devices are just fine.

AAA Foundation recently released a study challenging the idea that drivers are safe and attentive as long as their eyes are on the road and their hands are on the wheel. The study measured brain activity, while implementing distractions ranging from listening to the radio to using hands free devices. They concluded that use of hands-free cell phones or interacting with a speech-to-text email system places a high cognitive burden on drivers, which in turn, slow reaction time.

This hasn’t stopped automotive manufacturers from finding ways to safely integrate smart phones and other electronic devices. Transparency Market Research projected last month that the connected car industry will grow at a rate of 35 percent through 2019, up to $132 billion in revenue. Companies like Ford Motor Co.’s Sync technology allow drivers to make calls, play music, get directions and even send and receive texts, all by voice.  Ford plans on making this technology available in more than 90 percent of its 2014 vehicles.

Apple Inc., always ahead of the curve, has started integrate an “eyes-free” versions of iTunes and Siri in some cars. The goal is to transform cars into moving automotive Apple computers. The company plans to implement iOS 7 into vehicles as early as next year as well.

Mitsubishi Electric is in the process of designing the second generation EMIRAI concept car. The vehicle will feature 18 function buttons on the steering wheel and a touch screen on the armrest that uses biometrics to sense the driver’s surroundings.

Despite progressive efforts, the University of Utah’s report for AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety concludes that it’s still dangerous to use these devices. The human brain cannot interpret two different pieces of information at once. So even if drivers have their hands on the wheel and are looking forward, it is still not possible to process what is in front of the vehicle if giving voice commands to a device.

“This clearly suggests that the adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety,” the report concluded.

Even with all the new risks that consumers take to stay connected in our vehicles, AAA does not think it’s necessary to put a ban on these devices, but rather to develop a more collaborative relationship.  Future plans include working closer with OEMs to find ways to make in-car voice and text systems safer.