Tell Alexa you’re busy driving

This article was first published in The Technoskeptic magazine in December 2019.

As we march headlong into a digital age powered by the Internet of Things, digital assistants are growing ever more present, along with the hardware that facilitates them. Amazon leads the way with its Alexa-connected Echo family. So far, the target of this technology has been our homes, but with the introduction of the Echo Auto, Amazon hopes to extend that reach into our car. But how safe is a virtual assistant when we’re driving?

Originally announced in 2018 and offered on an invite-only basis since early this year, the Echo Auto is now available to everyone. The $50 contraption connects to your car’s speakers and uses your smartphone’s data connection through the Alexa app. According to the description on Amazon, users can make calls, update to-do lists, check calendars, get directions, interact with other Echo devices at home, and more, all using voice commands. Could this be a solution to the growing epidemic of distracted driving that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) killed over 18,000 people between 2012 and 2017? At least one major insurance carrier thinks so. In an effort to reverse market-share decline in recent years, Nationwide Insurance announced in September they’re giving away a million free Echo Auto units to new and existing customers as part of an expanding partnership with Amazon. But is welcoming Alexa into the passenger seat really a safe bet?

In reality, using a digital assistant in your car actually promotes distracted driving. According to NHTSA, “You cannot drive safely unless the task of driving has your full attention. Any non-driving activity you engage in is a potential distraction and increases your risk of crashing.” Confidence in our driving ability may tempt us to allow other things to command our attention while we drive. But in order to operate a moving vehicle safely, we need to dedicate all our attention to the task. This means more than just eyes on the road and hands on the wheel—it’s making sure our mind is fully engaged too.

Driving distractions come in three forms: manual, visual, and cognitive. Manual distraction occurs when we involve one or both hands in another task besides driving our car, like searching through a bag, eating, or adjusting a seat belt. Visual distraction is anything that takes your eyes off the road for any length of time—sending a text, turning to look at the kids in the back, or fiddling with the radio dial. Cognitive distraction is anything that switches your mind’s focus from the road, including talking to someone in person or on the phone, thinking about events on your calendar, or engaging in road rage. All three types of distraction can reduce safety while driving and increase the risk of a collision.

While the Echo Auto may reduce the possibility of manual distraction, the likelihood of visual and cognitive distraction remains a threat to safety. Visually, your eyes may wander over to your smartphone to see directions or information you’ve requested. You may want to glance at a headline Alexa brings up or review a to-do you’ve created. Any time your smartphone is being used actively, there’s a possibility you’ll look at it.

Cognitive distraction is a bigger problem. When you take your mental focus off the road, you are reducing the time you’ll have to react to something that happens or may happen around you. If you’re thinking of next week’s meeting or talking to someone on the phone, you are using precious mental resources that should be allocated wholly to getting you, any passengers in your car, and drivers of other vehicles on the road to the destination safely. Lives depend on your commitment to focus.

Today, the lure of efficiency entices us to think of other ways to use our driving time. But the reality is that the life-or-death thinking we do while driving can’t be shared safely with other thinking tasks. Science shows that our brains don’t truly multitask—they toggle back and forth between things quickly. Recent research shows that hands-free technology can be just as risky as hand-held devices. A 2015 study of hands-free technologies by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reveals that “potentially unsafe mental distractions can persist for as long as 27 seconds after dialing, changing music or sending a text using voice commands.” In other words, the brain can remain impaired by a distracting voice task during and up to almost half a minute after the task is complete. Stop signs, pedestrians, and changes in traffic flow could all be missed during those seconds of travel time.

Thinking thoughts unrelated to driving while driving is inevitable. But having a digital assistant in your car can actually foster a distracted environment. When you’re driving, you don’t need to be organizing your calendar, adjusting the thermostat at home, or checking your bank balance. You just need to drive.

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