The simulated road test — conducted this week in a Prince George’s County, Md., church parking lot with researchers from the University of Utah — was designed to highlight the findings of a new AAA report on the relative merits of different navigation systems for vehicles.
AAA teamed with the University of Utah to study the relative efficiency of infotainment and navigation systems — those that come preloaded in vehicles and those developed by Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto. It found that the smartphone-based systems were more flexible and less distracting to drivers than built-in systems found in five vehicles.
The road test was designed to study how people perform when they’re trying to drive a vehicle while using hands-free technology to program a route and dealing with random distractions. Not well, as I found out when I agreed to become AAA’s lab rat.
Madeleine McCarty, a lab manager in the psychology department at the University of Utah, put me behind the wheel of a Dodge Ram pickup. The track was pretty simple, with just a couple of turns and stop signs.
Then she attached a little button to my finger that clicked on and off when pressed against the steering wheel. She also fitted me with a buzzer that vibrated against my collarbone. Next, we adjusted a small, shaded lightbulb so that when the lightbulb was illuminated, its reflection appeared on the inside of the windshield in my field of vision.
These two stimuli — the buzzer and the reflected lightbulb — were supposed to mimic the sorts of unexpected things drivers need to look out for. Whenever the buzzer vibrated or the lightbulb changed color from orange to red, I was supposed to click the button on my finger. My reaction times would be collected by a computer.
Then McCarty started heaping on the cognitive load: To set a baseline for the experiment, she asked me to listen to a sequence of numbers and repeat them (with a slight delay) while we continued to drive around the track, all the while responding to the buzzer and the blinking light.
Then we got down to the nitty-gritty. McCarty rode shotgun as I drove the course testing three different hands-free navigation systems: Dodge’s built-in system, followed by Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto.
All I had to was ask Dodge, Siri or Google to direct me to the nearest coffee shop, the nearest library or the nearest Italian restaurant while driving at least 10 mph on the track and keeping up with the lightbulb and buzzer. On another run, I had to drive, watch for the light, respond to the dang buzzer and perform a separate task on a touch screen mounted to the dashboard. In each case, it soon became clear why we had to sign legal waivers to do the test. It drove me batty. It felt like complete overload.
“Imagine trying to balance your checkbook in your head while you’re driving down the road,” said David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah who authored the study. In an interview, Strayer said the test run demonstrates how people can so easily become caught up with a text message, or plugging in GPS coordinates that they don’t see the stop sign right in front of them.
My scores, as it turned out, fell right in line with the study’s test data, which found that compared with infotainment and navigation systems installed by automakers, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto were 24 percent faster on average for making a call and 31 percent faster when programming navigation.
The results suggest that even though Apple CarPlay and Android Auto could use improvements to make them safer while driving, the smartphone-based navigation systems were less confusing to drivers, said David Yang, executive director of AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
And yet the trend in new vehicles seems to be toward the more complicated and befuddling, Strayer said. If anything, auto manufacturers are going backward in design and even ignoring years of settled science — learned from the early days of aviation — on how to design instruments that do not distract an operator. Too many screens. Too much text on screens. Too many controls. Too many doodads — all in violation of voluntary federal guidelines that the carmakers helped to develop. On some new cars, it takes an owner’s manual to figure out how to get the radio to work.
“We’re seeing cars with over 120 buttons,” Strayer said. “All the lessons that came out of aviation psychology back in the 1950s because pilots were crashing planes because they were cognitively and mentally overloaded — those lessons we seem to have forgotten. It’s disheartening.”
It’s also potentially deadly, of course. An estimated 3,500 people die because of distracted driving every year. Strayer said he believes a sharp increase in traffic fatalities in recent years, particularly for pedestrians and bicyclists, is a direct consequence of the ubiquity of smartphones and other distractions drivers now face in the Information Age.
“There’s too much stuff. It’s too complicated to use. It’s supporting tasks that really shouldn’t be done while you’re driving, and it leads to high levels of distraction,” Strayer said. “If you start to overload a driver, they’re just not going to see what’s down the road.”
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