Virtual assistants could soon distract drivers in their cars, too

Technology has given drivers so many reasons to become distracted on the road.

Cars already have phones, radios, televisions and heads-up displays.

And soon, virtual assistants, which allow you to shop online and plan your day using voice commands, may be the next devices pulling drivers’ attention anywhere except where it should be.

Ford and Hyundai recently announced that they would install virtual systems such as Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa in some cars.

Alexa is a personal assistant system that can be activated by voice command. It can answer questions, update you on the weather and even play music when asked.

Google Home, meanwhile, is a voice-activated speaker system that, like Alexa, can answer questions and perform various functions such as controlling certain functions in your home.

Devices like theses will allow drivers to connect to smart home devices like thermostats or book reservations in restaurants.

They’ll even help drivers shop from the comfort of their front seats.

Convenient though they may be, they also come at a time of increasing attention to the issue of distracted driving.

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 31, 2016


Transport Minister Marc Garneau admits that the prospect of online shopping in your car is concerning.

And virtual assistants pose a unique risk because “hands-free lets you keep your hands on the wheel but your mind is somewhere else and you’re not scanning the way you should be scanning,” he told Global News.

But Garneau also said it’s a discussion that has to happen within both the federal and provincial governments.

Garneau isn’t wrong about the dangers that come from using hands-free devices.

Using a device like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa is far more distracting than using a phone, said 2015 research from Utah’s AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

It can take up to 27 seconds for drivers to regain their full attention when using voice commands, the study found.

“Ford and Amazon are teaming up to offer consumers the ability to access their car from home, and call up other features from their vehicle via Alexa – Amazon’s cloud-based voice service.” – News release


The study was done before Ford and Hyundai announced that they would add virtual assistants to some of their cars.

And that, in itself, poses a problem for Canada’s top distracted driving researchers: technology isn’t being studied nearly as fast as it’s growing.

“I think we’re not keeping pace,” says Robyn Robertson of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation.

“The technology is advancing much more quickly than we can study it and evaluate it and test it for its effects in terms of distraction. “

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