Talking cars: Knight Rider lives!

Remember those 1980s cars that used to tell you “Your door is ajar”?

Even aside from sounding like someone who only knows the punchline but not the setup of an old joke (“When is a door not a door?”) those voices annoyed almost everyone. Which is why, for many years, most cars didn’t talk.

But increasingly, they’re talking now. And we’re talking more to them. There are voice-activated music systems, hands-free telephones, and even GPS navigation systems you can ask questions. As computers take over more and more systems in cars, they’re going to need to communicate even more information…and humans’ preferred method of communication is talking.

That’s where communication and sociology researcher Clifford Nass of Stanford University comes in. As Dan Stober describes in a recent issue of Stanford Report, Nass is studying the information flow from driver to car…and vice versa.

What would your car say to you, if it could talk? Well, suppose it could tell, through your voice and facial expressions and driving style, that you were upset. It might talk to you to try to calm you down.

But what would be the best way for it to do so?

To find out, researchers put volunteers in automobile simulators in stressful situations. Some of them were reproached by their car. “You’re not driving very well and you need to pay more attention.”

That proved counterproductive: the drivers just got angry and drove worse than ever. As the voice gave even stronger warnings, such as, “You really need to be more careful!”, their driving deteriorated further. And when the voice finally insisted they pull over, the drivers responded by getting into accidents.

In a study last year (which they called, naturally, “Car-tharsis”), Nass and his students looked for ways that a car-voice could help control its driver’s emotions. Instead of being reproachful, it would sympathize. “Don’t worry. There will be a chance to pass the truck.” And if you got cut off in traffic, the car might do the yelling for you: “Learn to drive, you idiot!”

Of course, everyone has a different relationship with his or her car, so the choice of car-voice might be tailored to individual drivers, depending on whether they see their car as a submissive servant or more of a co-travelling friend.

Sure, people would know intellectually it was a machine talking. But “We Are Wired for Speech” (as the title for Nass’s most recent book puts it) and so we can’t help but react to a voice as if it were a real human being.

A case in point: a few years ago BMW had to recall some of its 5-series cars because they used a built-in female voice–and male German drivers wouldn’t take instructions from a female. (It’s not just German men who have that problem: in Nass’s studies, volunteers are always more likely to perceive a male voice as more authoritative than a female one.)

Nass has also found, among other things, that depressed drivers drive better when their car also sounds depressed; that older drivers prefer younger voices; that the use of complex sentences may improve safety by forcing drivers to pay attention; and that drivers feel more engaged with the computer voice if they believe the computer is installed inside their car instead of the voice arriving via a wireless connection from a distant computer.

That “wireless connection from a distant computer” raises privacy issues, Nass admits, because your car could conceivably know a lot about you, from where and when you travel to your preferences in music, news, sports, food, and shopping.

Advertisers would love to find out that stuff about you, and could conceivably pay to have your car suggest you visit certain restaurants or stores when you’re in their vicinity. Or an insurance company might make you pay higher premiums because you’ve been speeding or parking in high-risk areas.

Still, from a safety point of view, there could be huge benefits to having a talking, highly computerized car that could keep you alert and calm, warn you of problems ahead, and provide directions.

It’s the return of Knight Rider…only this time, you’ll be the star.

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