Can drivers handle wi-fi in the car?

Companies like Sprint that plan to provide high-speed internet access in vehicles should think twice, new research suggests.

“Because of the potential for driver distraction, safety should be of great concern,” says Ian Spence, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto and the author of a new study on the impact of auditory distractions on visual attention.

“Many people assume that talking to a voice-operated device will be as safe as using a hands-free cell phone, but neither activity is safe.”

Spence and a team of researchers asked subjects to perform an attentional visual field test in which they repeatedly identified the random location of an object in visual clutter displayed on a computer monitor.

Poor performance on the test is known to be a good predictor of unsafe driving. Subjects performed the test while carrying out a range of listening and/or speaking tasks or in silence.

An example of an easy task was listening to recordings of news items, much like listening to a car radio. More difficult tasks required subjects to answer simple yes-no questions while performing the visual test. Subjects answered by either speaking out loud in some experimental conditions, or merely thinking of the answer in others.

The most-demanding questions required subjects to take the last letter of a presented word (e.g., apple) and speak another word beginning with that letter (e.g., elephant).

Subjects who completed the test of visual attention coupled with the listening/speaking tasks were as accurate as those who completed the visual test in silence. However, they responded much more slowly as the difficulty increased—as much as one second slower with the most demanding tasks.

“It did not matter whether the subject spoke the answer aloud or simply thought about the answer,” says Spence. “It was the thinking, not speaking, that caused them to slow down.”

Spence says the practical consequences are clear.

“At 50 kilometers per hour, a car travels 13.9 meters in one second. A driver who brakes one second earlier than another driver to avoid a collision, will either prevent it completely or be travelling more slowly when it occurs, lowering the probability of severe injury or fatality.

“A delay in braking by as much as one second presents a significant threat to safe driving and casts doubt on the belief that hands-free voice-controlled devices reduce driver distraction.”

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada supported the research, which appears in the September/October issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Source: University of Toronto

chat4 Comments


  1. JEH

    I often rent cars and think there is a more basic problem – confusing dash controls, esp. with the proloferation of touch panel interfaces. On two trips in the last month, I had three cars with these screens and all worked differently. Some were primarily entertainment but others included basic functions like AC. Several times, I had to pull over to make what would be simple changes with knobs.
    As for adding cell phones and WiFi internet, didn’t Futurity have an article recently saying that people who claimed to be good at multitasking were actually bad at concentrating on any one thing?
    FYI, I taught high-speed driving and racing for years, where the focus was always on getting the driver to focus on the task of driving!

  2. Smeagol

    And it would only be a problem for people stopped in a wifi zone long enough to actually use it. Unless they come up with some internal wifi antenna device that allows cars to be online, or unless they use satellite internet like OnStar. I don’t see how wifi in the car would be useful unless you were in a starbucks parking lot.

    Secondly, if you’re a good driver, this shouldn’t be a problem for you. In fact, it should be easier and less distracting than having to perform multiple, less techonological tasks in the pasts, such as, driving a stick shift while talking on your cell phone and eating McDonald’s while smoking a cig and changing your contact lenses. I’ve done it and let me tell you, hands free wifi is nothing compared to that.

  3. Smeagol

    Also, if you can’t figure out the A/C controls in any car without pulling over, then you’re probably too old to be driving on the road in the first place. It’s pretty self-explanatory no matter what car you’re in. I take it you have a hard time with digital gas pumps and VCR’s as well?

  4. Paul

    I cannot think of a single reason of why a driver would need wifi whilst driving, any interaction will result in a loss of concentration, eating, smoking now searching the web as you drive.

    I am from the Uk and when learning to drive your are advised to be familiar with the controls before you set off, i am sure the same rule applies to wherever you learn to drive

    Anything that breaks your concentration whilst driving is a bad idea

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