New Vehicle Infotainment Adds Dangerous Driving Distractions

Functionality unrelated to driving increases visual/cognitive workloads, reduces safety

BOISE – (October 5, 2017) – While late-model vehicles offer many modern conveniences, several features unrelated to driving can lead to dangerous distraction, says AAA.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s Center for Driving Safety and Technology recently evaluated 30 new 2017 vehicles that collectively represent 30 percent of the market share in North America. In partnership with researchers at the University of Utah, AAA concludes that 23 of the 30 vehicle infotainment systems tested generated high or very high levels of workload, or demand, for drivers.

“The unfortunate truth is that some of the technology intended to add convenience and connectivity to our lives is also adding a dangerous degree of distraction and complexity,” says AAA Idaho Public Affairs Director Matthew Conde. “The primary task of safe driving is lost in a maze of secondary entertainment, communication, and navigation features.”

AAA’s recent study assessed the visual distraction (eyes off the road) and cognitive distraction (focus away from driving) associated with four task types – audio entertainment, calling and dialing, text messaging, and navigation – for three modes of interaction (center stack touchscreen, auditory vocal, and use of a center console with dials and/or slider bars). The infotainment systems’ visual and cognitive demand levels were combined to establish a rating for each test vehicle.

Cognitive Demand by task infographic

Although audio entertainment and calling and dialing tasks generated a ‘moderate’ level of demand or workload, text messaging produced a ‘high’ level of demand, and destination entry for navigation generated a ‘very high’ workload. The navigation task’s overall demand was more than two times higher than the “high demand” benchmark that was set during the study.

“There’s a serious misconception that just because a technology is available in your vehicle, it has been tested and proven to be completely safe,” Conde said. “The research findings point to high levels of demand that take the driver’s eyes and attention off the road.”

AAA says that systems in the ‘very high’ overall demand category produce the same visual and cognitive workload as attempting to balance a checkbook while driving.

The study also reveals important differences in the workload associated with the mode of interaction with each vehicle’s infotainment system. Interactions using the center stack were significantly less demanding than auditory vocal interactions, and center console distractions were the most demanding of all.  Although vocal commands reduced the time of visual distraction, these interactions also took longer to complete (about 40 seconds), increasing the cognitive load.

Taking eyes off the road distraction infographic

The visual and cognitive workloads were combined to evaluate the 30 vehicles tested in AAA’s research. The car that produced the lowest level of demand was the Chevy Equinox.  The vehicle associated with the highest level of demand was the Honda Ridgeline:

Distracted Study vehicle rating

“It would be unfortunate to label the car with the least driving demand as the ‘best’ or the vehicle with the highest demand as the ‘worst’,” Conde pointed out. “The focus is on the fact that all of these vehicle systems generate a strong workload that creates the potential for distraction.  With this information, AAA can help automakers design improved infotainment systems that achieve the goal of being no more distracting than listening to the radio or an audiobook.”

Researchers at the University of Utah studied 120 licensed drivers aged 21 to 36 who had normal or corrected-to-normal vision and a clean driving history. A total of 24 drivers were tested in each vehicle in the study, and the majority of drivers were tested on multiple vehicles on separate occasions.

Testing and evaluation took place on a two-mile stretch of residential roads with a posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour. Once drivers were familiar with the road, the vehicle, the measured tasks and the mode of interaction, they drove the course.  Along the way, they were asked to perform various infotainment functions while completing additional tasks designed to benchmark visual and cognitive workload.

Distracted Study-Participant-and-researcher

“AAA’s ongoing research dispels the myth of the multi-tasker,” Conde said. “Humans flip back and forth between different tasks, but we don’t do it very well.  Vehicle technology isn’t ready for drivers to disengage behind the wheel.  When driving at 25 mph, a motorist can travel the length of four football fields during the time it takes to enter a destination into a navigation system.  A lot of bad things can happen if the driver is distracted for that long.”

AAA encourages drivers to responsibly use vehicle infotainment systems. For example, drivers can enter the coordinates for a destination before driving to eliminate one of the biggest causes of distraction.  Motorists should limit calling, dialing and texting tasks to emergency conditions, or when the vehicle is not in operation.

“Even if you’re stopped at a red light, an emotional text, social media post or phone interaction can leave a driver distracted for a considerable length of time,” Conde said. “It’s best to complete these complex interactions while you’re parked, then proceed to drive only when you are totally focused on the task at hand.  Everyone’s safety depends on it.”