Apple and Google need to put the brakes on car APIs

Along with Ford, the companies need to ease up on push for APIs that integrate consumer electronics into automobiles

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As to Apple, by 2014, up to a dozen automakers will put a car-specific version of iOS on dashboards in some models, allowing iPhone owners to get access to navigation, music, and phone functions with a familiar interface.

Given the push by the auto industry and now the software industry, we're bound to see an awful lot of consumer electronics in cars really, really soon. And that worries me.

Real evidence mounts up
I'm no researcher, but the Utah study is entirely consistent with my own experiences. I've seen too many people do really clumsy things while they were using a cellphone equipped with an earpiece and microphone. Yes, their hands were free, but their brains weren't. That's no slur. Other studies I've seen indicate that when one's attention span is divided, something has to give. Sure, there are probably some people whose brains are wired differently than mine and who are capable of multitasking safely while driving -- but not many.

Even actions that don't seem very distracting can turn out to be a problem. A recent study out of the University of San Diego, for example, shows that when you're subjected to other people's conversation on their cellphones you'll be much more distracted than you thought, and much more distracted than if you had listened to a conversation by two people in the same room or elevator or train. Who knew?

But getting back to the work on voice-activated devices: The researchers measured drivers' brainwaves and eye movements to see what happened when they performed different tasks, such as listening to the radio and talking on the phone while behind the wheel. Their conclusion:

Compared to the other activities studied (e.g., listening to the radio, conversing with passengers, etc.) we found that interacting with the speech-to-text system was the most cognitively distracting. This clearly suggests that the adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety.

The Utah study doesn't stand alone. Researchers at UAE University in Abu Dhabi came to similar conclusions in a study released in March.

As I discussed this issue with a colleague, he asked me if I thought babies should be banned from cars, since they're a distraction. Sure, he was being a bit snarky, but that raises a point that should be addressed: In the real world, how far do we want to go to make driving safer?

I don't think we should be banning babies or voice-activated electronics from cars. What we should do, though, is slow the push to add consumer devices to automobiles until we are more certain of the effect they have on the ability of drivers to focus on the road. Missing a couple of Facebook updates while we're behind the wheel isn't much of a sacrifice if it turns out that even hands-free devices are too distracting to use in the car.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here (Add a comment) so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill@billsnyder.biz. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "Apple and Google need to put the brakes on car APIs," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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