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
Amazon.com.  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
http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/05/automobiles/automakers-voice-control-amazon-alexa.html. 



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