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Amazon's Alexa to hit the road: a safer or more dangerous driving experience?

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Amazon's digital voice assistant will be available in some Ford models this summer, but transportation safety experts and advocacy groups aren't sure that's entirely a good thing. 

Amazon's digital voice assistant Alexa displayed on the dashboard of a Ford vehicle. Ford expects to incorporate the digital voice assistant into some of its vehicles this summer.
Courtesy of Ford Motor Co.
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Some Ford drivers may soon be able to use their voice to adjust the thermostat in their home, add an item to their shopping list, or open their garage.

Ford Motors Co. announced Thursday it has teamed up with Amazon to bring its digital-voice assistant to models with Ford's latest SYNC feature, which allows voice use of apps in vehicles. Amazon’s Alexa will likely be available in cars this summer, the automaker said in a statement that coincided with its announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Ford will likely be the first in the industry to add Alexa to its lineup, although most new vehicles today have software that connects to a smartphone and allows drivers to place phone calls or dictate texts hands free. Carmakers have gradually been improving these features to offer drivers more convenience as well as combat distracted driving.

But some transportation safety experts and advocacy groups warn that such technology isn’t necessarily safer. Voice commands might keep drivers’ hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. But prompting, say, Apple’s Siri or Amazon's Alexa can be just as mentally distracting to drivers. They say it is up to both drivers and the auto industry to realize this technology should improve driving first, and add convenience and entertainment to the driving experience second.

“If you start composing tweets while you’re driving, that’s a cognitive distraction. It’s not going to help you control, guide, or navigate the vehicle,” says David Hurwitz, an associate professor of transportation engineering at Oregon State University. “The more functionality we add to vehicles, the greater potential we add for in-vehicle distraction. That’s concerning. We need to think about that more.”

Ford plans to incorporate Alexa into vehicles in two phases. Later this month, some owners will likely be able to tell Alexa-enabled speakers in their home to start the engine, lock and unlock their car doors, or check the battery range or fuel level, according to a press release. This summer, Ford plans to unveil the in-car feature for some owners. After a driver presses a voice-recognition button on the wheel and says “Alexa,” they would be able to use their voice to control certain car features, access internet services, and interact with smart devices in their home.

“Ford and Amazon are aligned around a vision that your voice should be the primary way to interface with your favorite devices and services,” Don Butler, executive director of Ford's connected vehicle and services, said in a statement. “Customers will be able to start their vehicles from home, and manage smart home features while on the road – making life easier.”

In an email to The Christian Science Monitor on Thursday, a Ford spokeswoman indicated vehicles outfitted with Alexa could also make driving safer.

“Research indicates that helping drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road is the most important factor in minimizing distractions,” writes Elizabeth Weigandt. “Therefore, we’ve prioritized voice recognition as the interface for smartphone control while driving.”

Distracted driving entered the public consciousness a decade ago, entwined with the use of cellphones. How could automakers and regulators stop drivers from holding phones to their ears or texting? The increase in mobile apps that tie to the driving experience only added to these concerns. As The New York Times reported, a Snapchat feature allows drivers to post photos that record the speed of their vehicle. The navigation app Waze also rewards drivers that report traffic jams, accidents, and police sightings.

One solution was the introduction of voice commands. In addition to Ford, other carmakers have plans to introduce their own hands-free systems including Honda, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz, according to The New York Times. Using hands-free headsets or a Bluetooth connection to their car, drivers can also utilize digital voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Google Now. But this feature, whether through a smartphone or a vehicle’s infotainment system, isn’t always safer.

A series of studies the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety commissioned the University of Utah to perform found voice commands can be as or more distracting than talking on a cellphone or changing the radio station.

In 2014, University of Utah psychologists found speaking to Apple’s Siri voice assistant was more mentally taxing than physically playing with knobs and dials on a car’s dashboard.

“The push to voice-based technology acknowledges that people need to keep their eyes on the road,” David Strayer, a professor of cognitive and neural science at the University of Utah, told Automotive News. “Our research suggests that’s not enough. You need to be paying attention to what you’re looking at.”

In a follow-up study the next year, Dr. Strayer and fellow Utah psychology professor Joel Cooper found it takes up to 27 seconds for a driver to regain concentration after using a voice-recognition system, whether it’s through their phone or their car. Part of the reason, they found, was drivers’ frustrations over the devices. Oftentimes, they said, these devices only respond to parts of a voice command.

In that sense, Alexa is a step up from its competitors. Electronics reviewer Tom’s Guide found Alexa was more accurate in its responses to 300 questions compared to Siri.

But the advocacy group National Safety Council told the Monitor in an email that the “bottom line” is any voice-command system can be distracting.  

“Digital assistance software and other types of communication systems in our vehicles are designed and used for convenience, rather than with safety in mind,” wrote Tatyana Warrick, spokeswoman for the National Safety Council. “Hands-free is far from risk-free. Communication that doesn’t help the driver with the primary task at hand – the safe operation of a motor vehicle, should not be used behind the wheel and has the potential for distraction.”

This report contains material from Reuters.