Keep Your Hands On The Steering Wheel

To keep safe, businesses look to hands-free systems for cell phones and handhelds

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

September 21, 2001

7 Min Read

There are an estimated 129.4 million cell phones and handheld devices in North America, according to the Strategis Group, a market research firm. The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates there are 500,000 drivers on America's roadways talking on cell phones at any given time. While these devices can provide a lifeline in times of emergency, they also have a negative side: They can become dangerous distractions when used while driving.

This puts companies that have employees who use the devices in a precarious situation. A $30 million suit is pending in Virginia against Cooley Godward, a San Francisco law firm, after a car being driven by an associate visiting the state last year struck and killed a teenage girl. The associate was talking on her cell phone at the time, and the girl's family is seeking damages against the driver and the law firm.

Businesses and their employees are especially susceptible to litigation after accidents, says Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA, a national newspaper in Boston that tracks litigation trends. "Many people find cell phones rude, and there's a stereotype of the hotshot businessperson with their minds on the deal and not on the road," he says. "Here's the jury's chance to sock it to a businessperson and the company behind them."

State governments are also weighing in. New York recently passed legislation that, starting in November, will make it illegal to use a handheld cell phone while driving. As many as 40 states, including California, Florida, and Massachusetts, have approved similar legislation limiting the use of cell phones. Massachusetts, for example, prohibits school-bus drivers from using cell phones, and Florida requires drivers to have one ear free to listen to traffic.

This isn't the first time there's been an outcry concerning driver distractions. When automakers first started putting AM radios in vehicles, some claimed that drivers distracted by the music and commentary would be a danger to others on the road. Still, studies indicate cell-phone use is especially hazardous. According to a 1997 report in the New England Journal Of Medicine, drivers on cellular phones are four times as likely to be in an accident than those not using cell phones.

The backlash against cell-phone use in cars and the ensuing laws are forcing businesses to reevaluate their policies on cell phones. Experts say companies need to create policies that instruct employees to be aware of and abide by state laws on cell-phone use. That puts the onus on individuals to adopt appropriate behavior when driving and removes businesses from possible litigation, Harrison says. "If [companies] do get sued, then they wouldn't be liable because this person would not be following policy when they made this call," he adds.

Businesses can enact policy that, similar to laws being passed in New York and other states, let drivers use cell phones only if they use headsets that let them talk on the phone without putting phones to their ears.

The most sophisticated hands-free systems go beyond simple earphones and rely on speech recognition and technology that converts text to speech or vice versa. Such systems will let a caller speak a telephone number rather than dial it.

More advanced applications that tie the cell phone to back-and front-end systems let users access company data, record reports, and schedule meetings and other tasks, all while keeping their hands on the wheel. Speech-recognition applications "listen" to what a user is saying and extrapolate the commands issued. Such systems use algorithms to assess different sound waves for different words. When using a moderate number of commands, the systems can be accurate up to 90% of the time, says Michael Orr, CEO of MobileAria Inc., a telematics provider for the auto industry. Speech recognition works hand-in-hand with text-to-speech applications that can produce audio files of text found in an E-mail or a spreadsheet.

Employees at Charles C. Production Group, an entertainment production company in Los Angeles, have been using a hands-free system from Wildfire Communications Inc. Charles Towle, a senior producer-designer at the entertainment company, often relies on his cell phone to keep in touch while driving. Wildfire's system includes speech recognition that can recognize voice commands from Towle and his co-workers, as well as from people calling Towle. He can initiate calls, create and change appointments, and listen to voice and text messages.

"As soon as you start dialing on a pad or put something to your ear, you turn your eyes off the road," says Towle. What voice access does, he adds, "is allow you to concentrate on the driving, which is better for me because I don't want [employees] running into somebody."

Driving between film studios for meetings, Towle uses Wildfire as his 24-hour assistant, he says. "I'm actually using my car time to maximize time," Towle says. "Instead of having to waste five minutes to find a number or something, I can ask Wildfire to do that."

Alta Resources Corp., an outsourcing company for customer service and telephone sales in Neenah, Wis., is using speech recognition and voice-to-text technology to audio-record sales information that's then transferred to a database via an application called JustSales from JustTalk Inc. Thanks to a partnership between JustTalk and PeopleSoft Inc. that integrates JustSales with PeopleSoft apps, Alta Resources employees will be able to record notes that are converted into text via speech recognition and then sent directly to a PeopleSoft 8 CRM Sales application.

"This JustTalk product allows me to record information that's fresh in my mind," says Bill Parry, chief technology officer of Alta Resources, who has been testing the system for his company since April.

In addition to recording customer notes, JustSales also lets Parry reschedule meetings through the PeopleSoft application. "If you [tell it to] schedule a meeting with somebody at 3 o'clock tomorrow, it will go to your calendar and schedule a meeting," he says.

The system is more than a time-saver, Parry says. "It will allow us to collect information that currently we're not collecting. Once we collect all the interactions with all our customers, there will be some data mining." Because Alta Resources was already using PeopleSoft, Parry says, the installation of the system was fairly painless.

Auto manufacturers are working with hands-free technology, too. OnStar Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors Corp., is outfitting some GM vehicles with embedded systems that utilize voice recognition and audio-based services and content.

OnStar is expanding its offerings to GM 2001 vehicles with OnStar Personal Calling for voice access to cellular calls without using a keypad or handset, as well as its OnStar Virtual Advisor to let subscribers wirelessly access the Web via voice.

The OnStar technology will be included in the 2002 Acura RL and the Subaru 2003 Outback wagon, as well as in certain Audi and Lexus vehicles.

IBM's alphaWorks division, which tests new technologies for consumer use, is also experimenting with hands-free technology that will, for example, let a driver tell the radio to change stations, says alphaWorks manager Daniel Jue.

IBM is also testing its Blue Eyes system, which detects and analyzes human eyes and could be used to authenticate users who access company networks or even warn a driver who's falling asleep at the wheel, Jue says. IBM demonstrated its hands-free technology last month in a 2002 Ford Explorer at the IBM Technical Developers Conference in Cupertino, Calif.

Hands-free systems must evolve to keep up with the growing demand for instant access to information, says Alpa Shah, research manager for analyst firm Frost & Sullivan. "When you're on the road, you want access to everything that's on your PC," she says. "Being able to access your E-mail and your voice mail over your phone is a good start. But you need to be able to go further." Shah says things such as voice-enabled Web portals that will let people check stock prices and rent cars are in the works.

That means companies will need to add speech-recognition technology to their IT plans. "They should be looking at staffing up the skill set in the design of speech apps," says Steve Ehrlich, VP of marketing at Nuance Inc., a maker of speech-recognition software.

It's important to note that hands-free systems aren't completely fail-safe. According to a study by the University of Iowa's Department of Industrial Engineering, there's an increase of 30%, or 310 milliseconds, in reaction time when a driver is using a speech-based system over the reaction time of drivers with no such systems. Hands-free isn't risk-free, but it can help mitigate driver distraction.

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