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Smartphone software less distracting than infotainment systems, U. study finds

New analysis from the University of Utah shows that some smartphone-based driving software is less distracting than standard carmaker operating systems.
New analysis from the University of Utah shows that some smartphone-based driving software is less distracting than standard carmaker operating systems.

SALT LAKE CITY — New analysis from the University of Utah shows that some smartphone-based driving software is less distracting than standard carmaker operating systems.

The researched conducted at the U. for the nonprofit AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto are not as distracting for drivers compared to built-in vehicle infotainment systems designed by automakers.

Researchers evaluated five vehicles — 2017 and 2018 models — to determine the amount of visual and mental demand placed on drivers by CarPlay, Android Auto and each individual vehicle’s native infotainment system.

While CarPlay and Android Auto could still create potentially unsafe levels of distraction, they decreased the demand placed on drivers compared to similar technologies offered by automakers, the lead researcher said.

"Android Auto and CarPlay allow a lot of features and functions that are easier to use than what you typically find with a car when you first purchase it," said David Strayer, professor of Cognitive and Neural Science in the U.'s psychology department. "Even so, some of those features are still too distracting. With the features and functions that are available, in some situations it may be distracting the driver to levels that are still unsafe."

The data collected indicates that even though many current infotainment systems create potentially unsafe levels of distraction by allowing drivers to perform complex tasks like programming navigation or sending a text, the Apple and Android systems were 24 percent or 5 seconds faster on average than dealer systems when making a call and 31 percent or 15 seconds faster when operating navigation, he said.

"It does show that there is a blueprint for making these systems safer," Strayer said. "The car manufacturers can look at CarPlay and Android Auto and try to make their systems so that they behave at a similar level."

The difference is critical because drivers who take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds double their risk of a crash, he added.

"(Navigation and texting) are best done when the car is stopped, even though they can be done when the car is in motion, it's not necessarily best to do so," he said. "Just because a vehicle allows you to do it doesn't mean it's safe to do it."

AAA reported that distracted driving is responsible for more than 390,000 injuries and 3,500 deaths annually. The new data could be useful in helping to decrease those casualties by reducing the level of demand that in-vehicle infotainment technology places on drivers, Strayer said.

“While improvements are necessary before any of the systems can be considered safe to use while driving, this research shows that smartphone-based software has the potential to offer a simpler, more familiar design that is less confusing to drivers, and therefore less demanding,” said David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

The study found that CarPlay and Android Auto did not differ significantly from one another in the level of overall demand. Based on that information, AAA recommended that the auto industry work to design native technology systems that do not exceed a low level of functionality demand.

“Automakers are experts at building safer cars, but Google and Apple are more skilled at building safer vehicle infotainment technology,” said Marshall Doney, AAA president and CEO. “By leveraging their strengths, the two industries must work together to significantly improve the design, functionality and safety of these technologies.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends locking out high-demand functions such as programming navigation and text messaging, which could significantly reduce the level of demand created by in-vehicle infotainment technology. Since the vehicle’s software influences which features are locked out, it is important that automakers and software designers work together to improve the safety of in-vehicle infotainment technology, Doney said.

AAA urges drivers to avoid using in-vehicle infotainment technology to perform non-driving related tasks when behind the wheel, said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety and advocacy.

Even with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto requiring less overall demand and time to complete a task, drivers still took up to 33 seconds to complete a navigation task compared to 48 seconds for native systems, he said. At 25 mph, drivers can travel the length of three football fields during this time, he noted.

“Drivers must use common sense when it comes to technology inside the vehicle. Just because it is available, doesn’t make it safe to use,” Nelson said. “Smartphone companies and automakers must collaborate to reduce the potential for distraction that technology places on drivers.”