As we enter 2008, there are many changes well under way not just in our industry, but in the fundamental ways that people communicate. Using a mobile device as an MP3 player, camera, messaging tool, videocam, TV screen and more is becoming a daily reality for many consumers, elevating the need for on-demand services.
Michael J. Thompson
But there’s a potential downside looming as communications and content become available anytime, anywhere: They can distract users from performing other tasks, such as safely driving a car. That’s why the industry needs to ensure that it’s doing enough to make these applications not only convenient to use, but safe, as well.
According to the AAA, distracted driving currently kills more teenage drivers than drunk driving. More than 45% of teens read or send messages while behind the wheel. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) recently claimed that more than 1 million drivers use their phone at any given time and that dialing a mobile phone was one of the major causes of driver distraction – second only to falling asleep as a cause of accidents.
Those statistics are staggering and likely to become even more so, considering that texting is increasing in popularity, not decreasing. In response, states such as California and Washington are beginning to implement legislation against using mobile phones while driving in order to help eliminate, or at least reduce, distracted driving and its resulting accidents.
But are laws enough? Nuance Communications believes that the wireless industry can and should step up. For example, recent advances in Bluetooth and voice activation technology give consumers continued access to communications, entertainment and navigation while keeping their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
It’s clear that the wireless industry already recognizes these opportunities to balance safety and convenience. As countries began to pass hands-free regulation, the industry responded with aftermarket solutions such as hands-free kits that allow drivers to dock their phones with their car’s audio system. Next, handset makers incorporated voice-dialing features that allow users to call pre-recorded address book contacts (the predecessor to today’s voice-activation technology). Then Bluetooth emerged as a convenient way for users to connect their handsets to their car’s audio system and eliminate the dangerous angle of corded headsets. And, finally, handset vendors now offer new voice dialing features (that are independent of a user’s voice and can recognize any contact or number) that users can invoke by pressing the Bluetooth headset button.
These examples also show how the industry can turn problems into opportunities: Bluetooth headset vendors attribute hands-free regulation to their explosive growth since 2001.
The next step in the evolution of hands-free access is voice activating other applications beyond dialing, such as dictating and listening to text messages, or entering destinations into navigation systems. As the recent Ford SYNC commercials have shown, simply speaking “play artist Michael Bolton” and having your MP3 player start your favorite song instantly is a great feature for any car to have. It also still has a “cool” factor that will impress friends and family, although perhaps when it plays a cooler artist.
Just a few years ago, speech seemed like a technology that would never pan out. But the rapid popularity of Bluetooth headsets and the messaging, content and navigation applications that they enable show that speech will become a standard way of accessing advanced applications on mass-market devices in order to better follow hands-free laws and multitask while driving.
A few examples of how voice activation is keeping drivers’ hands on the wheel include:
- Caller IDs can be read out so that drivers don’t have to look at a screen to see who’s calling
- Drivers can speak addresses into navigation systems and listen to turn-by-turn directions, eliminating the need to look at a screen
- Drivers can dictate and listen to text messages or e-mails
- Drivers can speak their MP3 requests or say a radio station’s call letters to have the radio tune itself
More than 1 trillion text messages were sent worldwide last year, and that number is expected to explode to more than 2 trillion in 2008. Increasingly, these messages are sent by drivers who put themselves and others at risk by taking their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel to manually enter text on their cell phone keypads. As an industry, we should seek to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Thompson is vice president and general manager of Mobile Search & Communications business at Nuance.