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Voice-activated systems aim to reduce danger, but safety experts fear driver distraction

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Mobile apps and in-car technology are increasingly turning your car into a marketplace on wheels, enabling you to order a pepperoni pizza or pay for parking from behind the wheel. Load your card number into your mobile payment app or your dashboard, and you’re good to go.

The folks behind creation of mobile marketplaces tout the convenience afforded by these innovations, but safety advocates worry that consumers will pay for that ease of paying on the go – with their lives. While the car tech developers say they’ve taken safety into account, safety advocates fear that both mobile apps and in-car technology will aggravate a growing problem on U.S. roadways: driver distraction.

The debate over convenience versus safety will only speed up as automakers and app makers ramp up the availability of on-the-go technology for drivers.

Distracted driving a ‘public health epidemic’
Restaurants including Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and Taco Bell have rolled out mobile apps that allow a customer to place orders on smartphones, and then stroll into the store and pick it up, bypassing the line at the drive-through window. Meanwhile, automakers, tech giants and credit card networks are collaborating to enhance dashboard systems so motorists can pay for gas or parking from the car.

That worries some safety experts. Order-ahead mobile apps and in-vehicle payment capabilities are adding yet another layer of distraction for drivers, says Peter Kurdock, director of regulatory affairs at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a nonprofit alliance.

“The problem is when you’re introducing more and more of these things into a vehicle, it’s just another avenue for cognitive distraction, and it’s another thing that somebody can be distracted by instead of focusing on the driving task,” Kurdock says.

Distracted driving, he adds, has become a “public health epidemic.”

In raising red flags about the rise of in-vehicle payment systems and order-ahead mobile apps, Kurdock and other safety advocates cite data underscoring the dangers of distracted driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 people were injured in car crashes involving distracted drivers in 2015. The number of deaths in that category was up 9 percent from 2014.

Order ahead, and increasingly with your voice
One area of agreement is that motorists shouldn’t be placing orders on apps while they’re driving, as that means they’re taking their eyes off the road – and possibly their hands off the wheel – and aren’t fully focused.

Waze and Dunkin Donuts in app ordering

In March, Dunkin’ Donuts introduced a perk for members of its rewards program that lets them order ahead through the Waze navigation app.

Justin Drake, senior manager of public relations for Dunkin’ Brands, says ordering ahead through Waze isn’t supposed to happen while a user is driving. “The user should submit his or her order before navigating to the given Dunkin’ Donuts location,” Drake says.

Automakers, tech companies and credit card networks say that to offer payment convenience while also safeguarding motorists, they’re emphasizing voice-activated technology, designed to keep a driver’s hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

Kiki Del Valle, senior vice president of digital payments and labs at Mastercard, says the card issuer and partner General Motors are promoting “safety first” – “a hands-on-the-wheel, eyes-on-the-road experience” – by relying on voice-activated commands for ordering and payment instructions.

“When you think about hands-free calling or messaging, these are things that minimize the risk of driver distraction today,” Del Valle says.

“When you think about hands-free calling or messaging, these are things that minimize the risk of driver distraction today.”

Through voice-activated features, Mastercard and GM want to give a driver the ability to order and pay for items with “minimal engagement,” Del Valle says. A driver’s favorite orders could be tracked via cloud-based storage, along with the driver’s credit card information, she says, making the purchasing experience “very seamless and secured.”

Is your focus on the road or on food?
Kurdock, the road and auto safety advocate, shoots down the notion that “seamless and secured” is safe.

“There’s this fallacy out there that they love to push,” he says, “that as long as your hands are on the wheel and you’re looking straight ahead as you’re having an emotional conversation or you’re ordering a pizza or you’re doing God knows what – debating what type of shirt to purchase or what type of jeans you should be buying from Amazon – that somehow you’re focusing on the driving task.”

A study released in 2015 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), MIT and the New England University Transportation Center showed that voice-activated systems help drivers concentrate on the road compared with “manual interfaces” like touchscreen systems, but they don’t eliminate visual distraction as a whole.

Another study issued in 2015, this one from the AAA Foundation and the University of Utah, found that it takes up to 27 seconds for a driver to snap back to full attention after spitting out voice commands to a dashboard “infotainment” system or a smartphone.

“Drive mode” guidelines debate rages
Aiming to cut down on distracted driving, NHTSA in 2013 put out voluntary guidelines for automakers regarding built-in devices and systems in vehicles. Three years later, in 2016, NHTSA proposed voluntary guidelines that would encourage makers of smartphones and other portable devices to create a “drive mode” – cutting off many of a device’s functions while a driver is on the road – to help decrease distracted driving. Device makers balked at that proposal, saying it represents “regulatory overreach.”

Dan Gage, senior director of communications and public affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group, says automakers are committed to reducing high-tech temptations for drivers to look away or take their hands off the wheel. For instance, he says, automakers are working on voice-activation technology that will permit “greater functionality without significantly increasing safety risks.”

According to Gage, the automotive industry voluntarily initiated guidelines to combat distracted driving in 2006. Since then, he says, NHTSA has “largely adopted them.”

“Customers have shown that if they are not offered safer paths to accessing the information and content they desire, they will simply access the content using the handheld devices that are already in their pocket,” Gage says. “Since such devices have not been designed to be used while driving, the safety risk associated with their use is significant. Automakers are working to get customers’ eyes and ears off handheld devices and on in-vehicle systems instead.”

Kurdock stresses that NHTSA’s distracted driving guidelines for automakers are voluntary, not mandatory. Therefore, he says, the federal government can’t punish automakers if they don’t adhere to the guidelines.

“Clearly, these guidelines are being ignored,” Kurdock says. “They’re totally insufficient.”

Gage argues that the guidelines are essentially de facto regulations.

“It’s important to note that the guideline process offers federal agencies a nimble and flexible way to adjust to constantly changing technology,” Gage says. “The federal regulatory process is cumbersome, burdensome and less responsive to innovation. It can delay the introduction and deployment of these needed safety advances.”

A common aim: Curbing distracted driving.
No matter whether those guidelines are strong or weak, safety advocates put the onus on automakers, along with their partners, to curb distractions prompted by in-vehicle payment capabilities.

“Technology is changing rapidly, and automakers have a responsibility to ensure that built-in infotainment systems and other technology doesn’t exacerbate the large distracted driving problem that has been a factor in crashes ever since people started driving,” says Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications at IIHS.

See related: In-car payments: A wallet that’s truly mobile

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