Although three out of four drivers believe that hands-free technology is safe to use, new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that the popular devices increase mental distraction. And, while using voice commands to do something as simple as adjust your radio can increase your distraction level, the worst culprit, according to the study, is Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Siri voice assistant.

That's potentially bad news for Apple, which has begun a push into the automotive world with its CarPlay system, which is built around using Siri voice commands.

"We already know that drivers can miss stop signs, pedestrians and other cars while using voice technologies because their minds are not fully focused on the road ahead," said AAA CEO Bob Darbelnet in a press release. "We now understand that current shortcomings in these products, intended as safety features, may unintentionally cause greater levels of cognitive distraction."

How the study was conducted
Dr. David Strayer and researchers from the University of Utah used test vehicles equipped with heart-rate monitors and equipment designed to measure reaction times to evaluate and rank how much distraction various common voice-activated tasks cause. The researchers used a five-category rating system created in 2013 for a previous version of this study, which lists listening to the radio rated as a category 1 distraction, talking on a hand-held or hands-free cell phone a category 2, and using an error-free speech-to-text system to listen to and compose emails or texts as a category 3.

Some of their findings this year included:

  • The accuracy of voice recognition software significantly influences the rate of distraction. Systems with low accuracy and reliability generated a high level (category 3) of distraction.
  • Composing text messages and emails using in-vehicle technologies (category 3) was more distracting than using these systems to listen to messages (category 2).
  • The quality of the systems' voice had no impact on distraction levels -- listening to a natural or synthetic voice both rated as a category 2 level of distraction.

The researchers also separately tested the iOS 7 version of Siri and found that "hands- and eyes-free use of Apple's Siri generated a relatively high category 4 level of mental distraction." 

It's important to note that there's no reason to believe that Siri's competitors, including Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Cortana or Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) voice assistant, wouldn't result in the same level of distraction, but neither was named specifically in the AAA study. 

Why does Apple want this market?
We're in the very early stages of in-vehicle control systems and the competition to own your car's dashboard is already fierce. Apple has CarPlay. Microsoft has the lyrically named Windows Embedded Automotive 7 (formerly Windows in the Car), and Google is testing Android Auto

Steve Teixeira, director of program management for Microsoft's Internet of Things team, gave a presentation at the company's April developers conference that explained why the company was interested in both the IoT and cars specifically. He explained that the connected devices of the future won't necessarily look like today's computers, tablets, and phones. The research firm IDC, he said, believes that this new market for intelligent systems could grow as large as $1.7 trillion by 2017. The auto and transportation segment of that market will grow to $7 billion in 2017, if the IDC prediction comes true, he added.

"There's going to be a lot of demand," he said. 

(Read my piece Why Do Microsoft's Windows in the Car and Apple's CarPlay Want to Control Your Dashboard? for more on this).

How damaging is this study?
The good news for Apple is that while it has gotten a lot of media attention, the AAA study is not likely to change people's behavior or their desire to use voice-activated in-car systems. This research probably won't hurt Apple's business in the short-term, but safety could ultimately decide the winner in the car market.

If Microsoft, Google, or another player make safety a priority and produces a study which shows that its system is dramatically safer, then people will take notice. The public is not likely to stop using Siri or other voice assistants while driving any more than it's likely to stop eating, drinking, or doing other dangerous things while behind the wheel. 

But, if people can do what they want in their cars, and be safer, then they might choose one company's voice-controlled digital assistant over another.

Apple should see the research as a warning and work to make using Siri while driving less dangerous.