Car speak

At the recent Mobile World Congress, some visitors wondered if they had stumbled into a car show by mistake. Big-name carmakers like Ford, GM and specialist app developers were all out to prove that the car is central to today’s connected lifestyle.

Natural language interaction technologies such as Artificial SolutionsTeneo are already playing an important role in making the connected lifestyle a reality on smartphones. And the same technology seems destined to become a key enabler for connected cars as well.

The car industry has for decades sought to persuade consumers that a car is much more than a means to get you from point A to point B. Take for example Ford’s enduringly popular small car, the Fiesta, whose very name conjures up the idea that cars are for having fun.

Today, fun means being constantly connected, even when in the car. So, visitors to this year’s MWC could see some of the latest ideas in infotainment for the connected car. Watch for example this demonstration from Onstar which uses a touch screen and 4G wireless networks to offer streaming video and apps downloading on the move.

But I wonder whether this reinvention of the car as a giant smartphone — and one capable of travelling at 200kph — is a completely positive development, particular when safety is at stake.

To be sure, the Onstar video and TV ads for connected cars emphasize that only the passengers and not the driver should manipulate in-car apps when on the move.

Indeed, the automotive industry argues that as people are going to use apps in vehicles anyway, it makes sense to encourage them to do so in a controlled and safer way using in-car technology designed to minimize the risk of distractions to the drivers.

Ford, for example, is encouraging developers to create apps that work with the buttons on a Ford’s steering wheel and its Sync in-car voice recognition system.

But I can’t help feeling a little uncomfortable with the automotive industry’s desire to encourage “frivolous” applications for in-car technology that can easily be misused and potentially put lives at risk.

For example, do we really want Facebook in a car? Sure, it’s cool to show your friends and comes in handy if you’re driving around and trying to find the latest Facebook party. But the obvious danger is that the driver and not just the passengers will want to look too.

You could argue that drivers can and do already access Facebook while driving via their smartphones, so what’s the difference? Well, if a driver is spotted using a smartphone at the wheel, he risks an automatic fine. But how do you spot if a driver is updating his Facebook profile or reading a Twitter feed if the app runs on a touch-screen built into the dash? He could just as likely be reaching for the air conditioning.

The US Department of Transport is also worried about this issue. Last year announced a series of anti-distraction guidelines that recommends manufacturers of in-car electronics devices disable non-essential tasks — such as texting or consulting a Facebook page — while the car is moving if they “engage the driver’s hands or eyes for more than a limited duration during driving”.

The devil is in the detail with these guidelines — how short is ‘limited’, for example – and they only cover factory-fitted in-car devices, not “guerilla” technologies such as smartphones that drivers already use in vehicles without any sort of limitation.

Nevertheless, the growing concern about distractions at the wheel should encourage greater uptake of speech-driven natural language interfaces because they reduce the need for so much visual and manual interaction.

Updating your Facebook profile using just your voice is going to be quite a challenge. But there are plenty of simpler and less frivolous apps that really add value to the driving experience without putting lives at risk.

Take for example a gas-station finder app which uses GPSgeolocation data to locate your nearest or cheapest gas station and displays them on a map. This already exists today in the USas the iGasUp smartphone app, but it is not speech-enabled.

Presumably, drivers are supposed to pull off the freeway when they use iGasUp. But if you’re in a hurry and the tank is flashing “Empty”, human nature is to fire it up while still at the wheel. Wouldn’t it be much better to voice-enable this type of app and hook it up to the car’s satnav system, so considerably reducing the risks of distraction?

Let’s hope they do, as the vision of an anxious driver in the fast lane with his eyes on a smartphone rather than the road is not what the automotive industry wants to promote.

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