PARK RIDGE, Ill. The firestorm of controversy over the use of cell phones in cars is being welcomed as a potential windfall by automakers and their suppliers. As engineers struggle to defeat the problem of driver distraction, the industry is charging forward with plans to build advanced telematics systems.
The car phone controversy, which spiked last month after New York State passed a law banning the use of handheld phones in cars, has hit a nerve with consumers, who appear torn over whether to condemn car phones or embrace them. Many experts believe the legislation could fuel broad consumer demand for the quick fix of a hands-free phone, igniting sales of factory-installed units.
"It's going to be a boon for telematics makers," said Dan Garretson, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. (Cambridge, Mass.). "It will be the biggest factor yet in driving people to adopt hands-free phones."
"This is great news for the telematics industry," said Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst for Gartner Dataquest (San Jose, Calif.). "It means that the technologies they are working on today, such as speech recognition and text-to-speech, will have more support in the future."
The New York law and proposed legislation in virtually every other state is aimed at handheld cellular phones, leaving telephone-addicted drivers little choice but to move toward built-in car phones and especially toward hands-free, voice-operated units.
Hands-free units are said to offer the best solution now available to deal with the driver distraction problems that car phones pose. And if car phone legislation proliferates around the country, as most experts expect, the factory-installed systems may emerge as the best choice for consumers. "When they purchase a new car, options like OnStar will look a lot more attractive because they offer the hands-free capability built right into the vehicle," Garretson said.
Still, experts say that hands-free doesn't necessarily translate to risk-free. Many are calling for further research and embarking on alternative solutions.
"It's not really enough to say that a phone is hands-free," said Will Fitzgerald, chief technology officer of I/Net Inc. (Kalamazoo, Mich.), which is adding contextual intelligence to voice recognition systems. "The issue is really the cognitive burden on the driver, and that hasn't been completely resolved yet."
Ironically, many of the same individuals who have pressed for car phone legislation are themselves admitted car phone users. In a recent survey conducted by Microsoft's MSN Carpoint.com, a Web-based car ownership service, 47 percent of respondents said they thought operating a handheld cell phone should be illegal while driving. At the same time, in a survey conducted by Forrester Research, 63 percent of handheld cell phone owners said they had used their cell phones in their vehicles. A similar survey quoted by General Motors put the figure even higher, with as many as 75 percent of handheld cell phone owners' admitting they had operated their phones while driving.
The cell phone debate reached a boiling point two weeks ago, when the New York State Assembly passed a bill that prohibits drivers from using handheld cell phones. Passage of the bill, which takes effect on Nov. 1, brought swift and venomous responses from people on both sides of the issue.
Love the law or hate it, most observers believe more such legislation is inevitable. "New York is the catalyst that will start a cascade of new laws," said Scott Pyles, vice president of sales and marketing for Lernout & Hauspie's Automotive Group (Burlington, Mass.). "Within 18 months, you'll see a national presence of that law," at least in the states with the densest traffic, Pyles predicted.
Much of the debate about such laws centers on the issue of driver distraction. Automakers and telematics vendors believe the problem has already been largely resolved through the development of voice recognition systems, which let drivers dial the phone, answer it, converse and hang up all without ever taking their eyes off the road or their hands off the wheel.
The technology prevents drivers from committing the most obvious safety errors, such as driving with one hand or looking down at a keypad while moving through traffic.
But many experts believe that voice recognition isn't a total answer. "Our studies indicate that a significant component of driver distraction is cognitive, not physical," said Phil Spelt, a senior research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is conducting a soon-to-be-released study on driver distraction for the U.S. Department of Transportation. "When you have a hands-free cell phone, you may have your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have your mind on driving."
Using a driving simulator at Oak Ridge, Spelt placed cognitive loads on drivers by asking them to solve a simple math problem while driving. At the same time, he gave them driving instructions. The vast majority of drivers failed to follow the instructions while mulling the math problem.
"Hands-off alone is not going to solve the entire problem," Spelt concluded. "Today, the best solution is to require that people pull over and stop while using a cell phone."
Many experts believe, however, that "pull-over-and-stop" legislation wouldn't be accepted in a society that's already reliant on mobile phones. "It's going to be difficult for those kinds of restrictions to gain any traction," analyst Garretson said.
Better than hands-free
One point on which the experts agree is that car phones should be less invasive. Software makers and telematics companies therefore spend much of their time developing improvements to today's hands-free systems.
Much of their effort is centered on reducing cognitive load. To do that, they're creating systems that know when and when not to communicate with the driver. Such systems look at context and understand what's happening around the vehicle, then use that information to "decide" whether or not to bother the driver. "If you're stopping hard, it's probably not a good time to be listening to gas prices over the Internet," said Fitzgerald of I/Net. "But once you're back to normal driving, it seems perfectly acceptable to do those kinds of tasks."
To deal with such aspects of the problem, I/Net is developing a software program that enables telematics makers to build dialog systems that examine the context of data within the car and then make intelligent decisions. Called the Conversational Interface for Vehicles, the system is an offshoot of robotics work that the company's principal officers conducted while working for NASA. "Knowing when to be quiet and when to speak is an important quality," Fitzgerald said. "And an intelligent system knows how to do that."
I/Net's Conversational Interface also offers the advantage of understanding natural language, thus eliminating the need for users to memorize word-for-word commands. Using such schemes, software makers believe they can alleviate one of the most maddening problems facing voice recognition: the need for users to repeat commands until they recall, verbatim, the command the system understands. Such repetition can cause huge cognitive burdens, say experts. In addition to I/Net, Lernout & Hauspie is among the companies working on that dilemma.
I/Net software engineers say their system can already understand such driver commands as "turn it down" and know whether the driver is referring to the radio volume or the heater controls. The trick, they say, is to keep recent commands in memory and use them as context when understanding language. The company claims that its program, which is less than 1 Mbyte in size, can fit within the memory confines of any telematics system that incorporates voice recognition.
Lernout & Hauspie engineers are working on similar systems and see them as part of a long-range plan. The first milestone, company executives say, involves breaking away from rote command menus, thus enabling drivers to use more natural language. The second is the ability to put such language in context, to understand commands that might be obvious to a person, but not to a machine. The company expects to reach both milestones by 2005 or 2006, Pyles said.
Lernout & Hauspie also has made a major move to bring voice recognition down from luxury vehicles to low-end cars. Its recently introduced Distributed Speech Recognition technology effectively cuts the costs of telematics hardware by eliminating the need for large on-board memories in the vehicle.
By moving much of the processing to an off-board server, L&H says its speech recognition systems can operate on just 128 kbytes of memory. Typical speech recognition programs usually have a footprint of 1.2 to 2 Mbytes and are expected to get larger as capabilities are added.
Automakers and telematics vendors expect hands-free phone operation to trickle down to all vehicle models within a few years. GM's OnStar Division has made inroads with 32 of GM's 54 North American models, and the company has said it expects to cover the entire line soon. At the same time, OnStar this past week said it will use the SpeechWorks Speechify text-to-speech engine on its Virtual Advisor.
In another vote of confidence for speech recognition, Visteon recently announced that the next generation of its Visteon Voice Technology had already been used on the Jaguar X-Type.
For vendors, the underlying theme is a conviction that car phones are here to stay. "Cell phones aren't just being used by the rich and affluent anymore," said Dataquest's Koslowski.