Monday, January 09, 2017

Californians Talk To Their Cars

The citizens of the U. S.'s most populous state have long had a love affair with the automobile.  Life in Los Angeles is well-nigh impossible without wheels of some kind, and many commuters spend almost as much time in their cars as they do on the job.  As of Jan. 1, it is illegal in the state of California to use your mobile phone while driving unless you use hands-free technology.  Fortunately for the millions who will now have to find some other way to communicate from their cars, the automakers are rushing to integrate voice-recognition systems such as Amazon's Alexa into their products so that you can simply ask for directions or ask to talk to a friend, and the system will do the rest.

As reported in a recent  New York Times article, Ford announced that Alexa will soon be a feature of its newest hybrid models later this year.  A mobile Internet connection is vital to the new service, which counts on using cloud computing for the often computationally-intensive task of voice recognition.  The same Internet connection will be used for many of the services accessed by the software:  online purchases, remote control of "Internet-of-Things" devices, and many other uses besides the obvious ones of telephone service and GPS guidance. 

The new law is a step forward in the struggle to reduce traffic accidents caused by distracted driving.  But we have yet to see what the effects of a well-functioning voice-recognition system in a car may be in terms of safety. 

Studies have shown that visual distractions can be deadly to drivers, while sounds are much less so.  Most people can carry on an animated conversation with a passenger without being too distracted from driving, and it's reasonable to assume that conversations with voice-recognition software will not be much more distracting than having a live passenger beside you.  Still, depending on the usefulness and accuracy of the system and the number and complexity of features, things could get complicated.

Your scribe here lives such a sheltered life that the closest I've come to an Alexa is seeing the ad for it every time I click onto  So I am not in a position to pass judgment personally on how well they work.  Apparently they work well enough to have made Amazon a lot richer in the past year or so, and the quality trend as more artificial-intelligence resources are applied to these things will only be upward.  Like many other new technologies, the real challenge in growing the market won't be so much technical as it will be changing peoples' habits.  And the California law is a powerful incentive to do so.

Consumers lie on a spectrum with regard to the adoption of new technologies.  Some folks—often younger ones—are early adopters who are the ones who wait in line all night long to be the first to buy a new iPhone or what have you.  The bulk of us don't rush out right away to get every latest thing, but when friends or acquaintances tell us about the item and how pleased they are with it, we go ahead and buy one when our old one wears out or when some business or personal need makes it better to buy than not.  And then, bringing up the rear of the bell curve, there are late adopters such as myself, who cling to old technologies with a grip that often takes legal force to loosen. 

There's no need to spend much marketing effort on early adopters—they often turn out to be a product's best informal salespeople as they show off their new purchases to others.  The major challenge is getting the average person to change their ways in the face of a new technology.  And California has done the automakers and the voice-recognition people a big favor in passing their hands-off-the-phone law.

Casual observation shows that a large fraction, if not a majority, of people who drive also like to talk on the phone at the same time.  If they haven't already adopted hands-free technology, as of this month, in California at least, they'll have to do something in order to avoid the threat of getting a ticket.  Enforcement is going to be lax at first, but the understanding is that this is just a grace period to give people time to adopt a new way of phoning while driving, and eventually you'll have to be using some kind of voice-recognition system, whether it's in your phone or installed in your vehicle. 

For people such as real-estate agents, maintenance providers, and others who drive around all day and have to be in touch with customers, the new law is just part of having to do business, and they will either buy a car with a built-in system or achieve their goal some other way, if they haven't already. 

For others who have not made a habit of talking on the phone while driving, the law will mean either pulling off the road when their hands-on phone goes off, or ignoring it until reaching one's destination.

Eventually, though, such actions will seem as quaint as hunting around for a pay phone to make a phone call.  The last time I saw a working pay phone was last summer on a drive through a small Nebraska town.  If I recall correctly, the same town also had a small operating movie theater in the middle of town, and a factory near the edge of town that made lawnmowers.  I didn't see any signs saying "Caution — Entering the Twilight Zone" but it gave me that feeling. 

The California law, and the automotive voice-recognition systems that will allow people to abide by it, are all part of the push to make us constantly connected whether we're at home, at work, or in between.  It's what people seem to want, or at least think they want.  Why they think they want it is another question, but one best left for another time.
Sources:  The New York Times article "Coming From Automakers: Voice Control That Understands You Better" by Neal F. Boudette and Nick Wingfield appeared on Jan. 5, 2017 at 

1 comment:

  1. Quote: "Most people can carry on an animated conversation with a passenger without being too distracted from driving, and it's reasonable to assume that conversations with voice-recognition software will not be much more distracting than having a live passenger beside you."

    Not really. When you're traveling with someone, only one is talking at a time. The leaves the other able to watch for trouble ahead. Not so with Alexia and her kin.