Forget texting while driving; emailing while driving is the newest thing

Spoken | August 9, 2016

Driving New BMW technology allows drivers to dictate emails

BMW has announced that its new cars will take dictation from behind the wheel. Following in the path of voice commands blazed by OnStar and Ford Sync, BMW drivers can now dictate emails–yes, full emails–while driving. PCWorld reports:

BMW has developed a prototype system that allows drivers to compose full-text e-mails and text messages using voice commands. Unlike voice-activation options in existing BMWs, the technology relies on speech-recognition algorithms that offer drivers, as well as passengers, freedom to dictate original messages from over a million recognized words in the database.

More interesting is the response the post drew from the members of the voice and speech recognition community. The Speech and Voice Specialists LinkedIn group blazed with comments, mostly surrounding the safety concerns of texting (or, in this case, dictating long-format message) while driving. Texting and other communication forms conducted while driving fall into the general category of “distracted driving,” which is outlawed in many states. From the article:

But in case it is not already apparent; texting, e-mailing, or even talking on the phone while holding the device to your ear is extremely dangerous, distracted-driving behavior. Distracted driving was involved in the deaths of 5474 people and 448,000 injuries in car or motorcycle crashes on U.S. roads and streets, according to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis.

And while leaving a 30-second voicemail or dictating a brief thought to be converted to text is one thing, the expectation that the driver can and should be capable of paying enough attention to dictate a long-format email message connecting several complex thoughts is unrealistic and, most likely, pretty unsafe. I’m all for using voice commands to ask a quick question, do a quick search (which PC World reports will also be a possibility with the new system) or dictate a quick text message, but long-format messages don’t fit into this category. This raises the question: just how much should we be able to do while driving?

An email contains not only several connected thoughts but also has conventions that a multitasking environment doesn’t facilitate. Greg Tanner, a technology business development specialist, commented:

The fact is that no matter how well trained a recogniser is, the patience needed to accurately dictate and correct/edit in the quiet of an office with no other distractions is tough enough. In a car, it’s just plain ridiculous. Using voice to activate a TTS that speaks incoming text messages or email is one thing. Trying to respond effectively and doing so without becoming frustrated and distracted from the primary task of driving is entirely different.

Likewise, there is an issue with ASR comprehension of dictation: even with a large grammar and vocabulary, the driver giving the dictation must review the text before it is sent to verify accuracy. Even with the best of recognizers, background noise, accents and unfamiliar words will lead to inaccuracies that require review before sending.

Géza Németh, an Associate Professor at BME TMIT in Hungary, suggested sending a short audio response to an email as an alternative, and that idea has some validity with respect to the accuracy issue. A short, dictated response of, “I’m on the road and will answer this when I arrive at my hotel in three hours” would be more useful and safer for the driver than attempting to respond to the email directly using dictation while driving. And while some BMW drivers might do exactly this, the larger concern is that others would indeed attempt to formulate full thoughts for email replies while driving.

Just as some drivers seem to be convinced that they can safely text and drive, a concern is that by providing this technology, BMW would be promoting the idea long-format communication is safe while driving.

No one is going to stop making calls while driving any time soon. And again, quick, dictated messages can be helpful and reasonably safe. Personally, I have a service I call to dictate 20-second reminder messages that are automatically transcribed and emailed to me. So if I remember something on my way home, I all the service and leave myself a quick message.

However, should we be encouraging people to formulate complex thoughts and write entire essays while driving? What are your thoughts?

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