Driving isn’t supposed to be miserable. Open road, your fave tunes, a navigation app to take away the uncertainty. But a new, small study released today by AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that those infotainment systems built into vehicles’ consoles make driving a bit more dangerous, by demanding too much of those who are supposed to be watching the road.
This study isn’t the first to come to such a conclusion. A bunch of new of research, from scientists and from public companies, indicates that all the gizmos that enterprising capitalists have built to surprise and delight consumers continue to surprise and delight them as they sit behind the wheel.
And distract them, sometimes to dangerous ends. The US Department of Transportation estimates 37,150 people died on American roads in 2017, a slight 0.8 percent decline over 2016—but a leap of more than 10 percent since 2014. Detailed research takes time, and public health officials haven’t definitively traced that jump to smartphones or to distracted driving. But many think it’s at least one likely culprit.
In this latest study, the University of Utah researchers commissioned to run the AAA analysis recruited 64 participants to drive in five different vehicles. At some points during the experiment, they used the manufacturer’s infotainment systems. At others, they ran Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, which use the car’s built-in interface but run software off the user’s smartphone.
Overall, the researchers concluded, the Apple and Android systems do a better job managing their users’ cognitive loads—that is, leaving room in drivers’ brains to actually pay attention to driving. The built-in systems in the five models tested (a 2017 Honda Ridgeline RTL-E, a 2017 Ford Mustang GT, a 2018 Chevrolet Silverado LT, a 2018 Kia Optima, and a 2018 Ram 1500 Laramie) all demanded high or very high levels of attention from drivers as they made phone calls, sent text messages, fiddled with the audio, and entered and followed navigation directions.
The Apple and Android platforms aren't perfect. CarPlay, for example, demanded more from drivers than Android Auto when it came to entering a destination; the reverse was true for sending text messages. “Both incurred moderately high levels of demand, thus providing opportunities to improve the user experience,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. Translation: Everyone needs to do better.
Because distraction has real, awful consequences. The startup Nauto equips fleet vehicles with smart cameras built to prevent collisions, and is constantly collecting data on road incidents. It found that, in one four-month period, 67 percent of severe collisions in fleets insured by the company Atlas Insurance Holdings were caused by distracted driving.
Still, researchers (like Utah’s) are working to understand how to manage drivers’ attention. Mobile tech might be making the problem worse, but so too might new automotive technologies. “As you introduce more automation, it’s just going to get worse,” says Jeff Blecher, the chief strategy officer of the company Agero, which provides vehicle safety and roadside assistance systems, and just ran its own study on automation and driver attention. Agero’s data suggests that younger drivers are much more likely to manipulate their phones while driving—that, in fact, drivers 17 to 22 are fiddling with their phones for a full 12 percent of time they’re behind the wheel. 😱.
For decades, automation in the aviation industry has proven that humans are really very bad about snapping back to attention once it has been stolen away by a message, a fun app, a funny-looking cloud.
Now that semi-autonomous technology is making its way into consumer vehicles, car companies and the scientists who work at them will need to get savvier about building systems that hold their drivers’ attention. To that end, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are currently in the midst of a multi-year study seeking to understand how drivers use features like Tesla’s Autopilot, rigging up Teslas, Cadillacs, Volvos, and Land Rovers with sensors and cameras to peer inside cars’ inner sanctums.
“This is about human-centered development: leveraging the human element and integrating it with advances in automation,” says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT who is working on the study. “We should be doing everything from defining how often that driver should be looking at the road and under what conditions, to their ability to detect threats out there.”
Which means, when it comes to cracking how humans interact with exciting, rogue bits of code, there’s plenty of work to do. And it’s going to require serious focus.
Alex Davies contributed reporting.
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