Toyota Voice System Is Least Distracting, AAA Study Finds

Toyota Motor Corp.’s voice-activated system is no more distracting than an audio book, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, while most such systems can cause “inattention blindness” for drivers.

The foundation tested systems from six automakers by having drivers use voice commands to make phone calls and operate the radio and CD player. General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet MyLink scored the worst. Toyota’s was the only one that caused less distraction than making a handheld mobile phone call, said Peter Kissinger, the foundation’s president.

Drivers are demanding the ability to converse with their cars as never before, just as they do with their smartphones. Yet voice-control issues are new-car owners’ top complaint, according to J.D. Power & Associates. That failure to communicate is distracting drivers from the road, Kissinger said.

“The bad news is that we saw rather simple systems that are voice activated score in that high level of cognitive distraction,” he said yesterday in an interview. “We found that when there wasn’t perfect translation and the system had difficulty communicating back with the driver, then drivers get frustrated, which tended to increase time spent getting the task accomplished, which increased workload, which increased cognitive distraction.”

System Rankings

Hyundai Motor Co.’s Blue Link was second-best after Toyota’s Entune, followed by Chrysler Group LLC’s Uconnect, Ford Motor Co.’s Sync with MyFord Touch and Daimler AG’s Mercedes Comand, the AAA foundation said in a statement. On a scale of one to five, with a lower number meaning less distraction, the scores were 1.7 for Toyota, 2.2 for Hyundai, 2.7 for Chrysler, 3 for Ford, 3.1 for Mercedes and 3.7 for GM.

Toyota’s Entune scored lowest because commands were usually understood by the car on the first try and the system was intuitive, Kissinger said. A driver could ask for a radio station in a variety of ways -- “Dial FM 103.5,” “Dial 103.5 FM” “Dial 103.5” -- and the system understood, he said. Other systems required more rigid commands.

“In a lot of systems, it turned out you had to be very specific,” Kissinger said. “We call those systems brittle to emphasize how limited they are.”

Arguing with your car over radio stations can lead to deadly outcomes, Kissinger said.

‘Tunnel Vision’

“You get tunnel vision from the driver that can lead to inattention blindness, the phenomena where you’re so focused on one task that your brain doesn’t allow you to see something right in front of you,” he said. “If you’re so focused on some infotainment system and you literally don’t see a young girl who runs out in front of your car, that’s a catastrophe.”

Cindy Knight, a Toyota spokeswoman, said in a statement that the automaker is “pleased to see that Toyota’s goal of simple design interfaces with low demands has scored well in this study.”

Hyundai designed its Blue Link system to be similar to smartphone functions, said Miles Johnson, a company spokesman.

“Customers have been telling us they want their systems inside their cars to work like their smartphones,” he said in an interview. “It’s all about speed and accuracy so you don’t have to do things over and over again.”

GM Response

GM said the systems AAA tested were on two-year-old Cruze compacts and Impala large cars, and have been significantly improved since then.

“Chevrolet is dedicated to minimizing visual and manual distraction by providing an experience that keeps drivers’ hands on the wheel and eyes on the road,” Annalisa Esposito Bluhm, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement. “AAA’s singular study focuses upon research related to cognitive functioning with no correlation to increased crash risk.”

Kelli Felker, a Ford spokeswoman, defended voice controls and said in a statement, “Extensive research shows that when a driver’s eyes are away from the road, the risk of an accident increases substantially.”

Chrysler declined to comment, deferring to the Auto Alliance, a Washington-based industry trade group that represents GM, Ford, Chrysler, Mercedes, Toyota and others.

“This study focused on a very narrow aspect of distraction -- cognitive load,” Wade Newton, a spokesman for the trade group, said in an e-mailed response. “Because the study did not address either visual or manual distractions, the results tell us very little about the relative benefits of in-vehicle versus handheld systems; or about the relationship between cognitive load and crash risks in the real world.”

Visual Distractions

Rob Moran, a spokesman for Mercedes-Benz USA, said in an e-mailed statement that “real-world driving studies show no substantial increase in crash rates associated with vehicle controls and displays. Research, as well as our own independent analysis, concludes that visual distractions -- such as texting and handheld phone -- present far greater risks to drivers than using voice-activated, hands-free systems.”

Kissinger said that Toyota’s Entune system has provided a “blueprint for success” and that AAA has shared its findings with all the automakers in the study.

“One manufacturer was able to produce a simple voice-activated system that came in at the same level of cognitive distraction as listening to books on tape,” Kissinger said. “That’s what we’d like to see all of them come in at.”

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