Siri Co-Creator Questions Texas A&M Texting-and-Driving Study

4/30/13Follow @wroush

The co-inventor of Siri has a bone to pick with the media.

A rash of stories last week—reporting on a study released by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) in College Station, TX—implied that using voice-to-text mobile applications such as Siri and Vlingo while you drive is no safer than texting while driving. But Adam Cheyer, the computer scientist who co-invented Siri and sold it to Apple in 2010, says that’s the wrong conclusion to draw from the study.

Here’s what the Texas A&M researchers actually discovered: when drivers on a closed course were holding an iPhone or Android phone in one hand and interacting with Siri or Vlingo, it took them almost twice as long to respond to outside events. For sending and receiving text messages, voice-to-text applications “do not increase driver safety compared to manual texting,” concluded study author Christine Yager, an associate transportation researcher at TTI’s Center for Transportation Safety.

But that’s not how Siri is designed to be used in a car, Cheyer argues.

“I don’t think that there is any evidence that shows that if Siri and other systems are used properly in eyes-free mode, they are ‘just as risky as texting,’” he says.

The crucial phrase in Cheyer’s quote is “eyes-free mode.” When a driver is using Siri with a Bluetooth headset or speaker—as Apple recommends—the app goes into a special mode that limits interactions to voice only. “It assumes you are ‘eyes-busy’ and responds differently,” says Cheyer, who left Apple in 2012.

Vlingo has a similar mode on Android phones. To properly test whether hands-free use of mobile phones while driving is safer than handheld use, the researchers should have asked subjects to use the smartphones in the eyes-free mode, Cheyer says.

“Of course your driving performance is going to be degraded if you’re reading screens and pushing buttons,” he says; that’s why the engineers behind Siri came up with a separate set of voice prompts that don’t require drivers to look at the screen. If more reporters had read the TTI report, Cheyer says, they might have noticed that the voice-to-text software’s capabilities weren’t getting a full test.

Special pleading from someone who still sees Siri as his baby? Maybe, but a source with connections to Burlington, MA-based Nuance, owner of Vlingo, shared similar concerns about the study. (Neither Apple nor Nuance have commented officially on the TTI findings.)

“My goal is not to knock this particular study,” Cheyer says. “I’m just dismayed that the message being communicated by news media—that ‘Siri is just as risky as texting’—is misleading.”

I contacted Christine Yager at TTI last week to ask what she thought about Cheyer’s points.

“We welcome input from the telecommunications industry and look forward to working together to keep travelers safe,” she replied in an e-mail.

But the study was designed to examine the way drivers actually use smartphones in their cars, she said, not the ideal scenarios suggested by software makers or device manufacturers. “We tested the applications in a way that is consistent with how many drivers typically use them,” Yager said.

Many smartphone owners may not even know that Siri, Vlingo, and similar apps have an eyes-free mode, Yager added. “We examined the product information contained in the packaging for the iPhone 4S, and were not able to find information related to the directed mode use of the device,” she said. “The only somewhat relevant reference said, ‘Consider using a compatible hands-free device with iPhone. Use of a hands-free device may be required in some areas.’”

It’s widely accepted that manual texting and driving are a deadly combination. About 18 percent of all vehicle crashes in 2010 involved distracted drivers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Texting is considered one of the worst forms of distraction, since it usually requires drivers to take their eyes off the road, their hands off the wheel, and their minds off the task of driving.

But voice-to-text apps have the potential to eliminate the visual and manual distraction from texting, if not the cognitive distraction. In Siri, sending a text message is as simple as … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Rich Hoyt

    Just how distracting was watching for the green LED and pushing the button? That needed to be tested speratly, the subtracted from the effect of “Siri” texting. The measure of reaction time is not realistic compared with normal driving. They should have measured normal like the reaction to stop lights for example. Also – “18 percent of crashes involved distracted drivers”, but what percent of the 18 were because of texting – there’s a whole lot of other distractions like eating or putting on makeup. Quit overstating the risk – texting is low compared with the overall causes of accidents.

  • Paull

    I run a limo type service, and a regular client is blind since birth. he and Siri are good friends, ALL his phone usage is eyes free. Needs to be seen and heard to be fully appreciated