A Google and Amazon-backed startup believes its Jeopardy trivia app is safe for drivers to play while behind the wheel, but experts on distracted driving aren’t convinced.
Drivetime, which was founded last year and based in San Francisco, wants to make driving entertaining through safe games. It’s designed hands-free games so drivers can answer questions while keeping their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. Drivetime offers a free daily game for users, and charges a fee for additional games, including Jeopardy.
Drivetime announced the new Jeopardy game last week, as well as that it’s raised $11 million from investors, including Amazon’s Alexa Fund and the Google Assistant Investments Program. Both companies have an interest in supporting apps that use voice technology.
Drivetime has been downloaded about 200,000 times, according to AppAnnie, a mobile insights and analytics platform. To play Drivetime’s games, users must first open the app, look at the screen and select a game to play. During gameplay, it is entirely hands-free.
US pedestrian fatalities have increased 40% since 2008, the year after the iPhone was unveiled and smartphone sales began skyrocketing. Researchers believe smartphones may have contributed to an unprecedented spike.
Drivetime believes its app helps keep drivers alert and diverts them from engaging in dangerous tasks on their smartphone, such as texting. It points to four studies into drowsy driving that show how “alertness maintaining tasks,” such as games and talking can improve driver alertness. The idea is that stimulating the brain keeps people awake, engaged and ready to drive.
But experts aren’t sold on Drivetime, including researchers behind two of the studies Drivetime cites.
“It is quite obvious that such a game will distract drivers when traffic is dense, even when hands-free,” said Willem B. Verwey, a professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, whose 1999 study on fighting drowsiness in nighttime driving has been cited by Drivetime.
Paul Atchley, a University of South Florida professor who led a study on driver alertness that Drivetime cites, cautioned against any conclusions on Drivetime being drawn before testing it. Atchley’s study focused on monotonous, flat rural highways with minimal traffic, not congested urban commutes.
“If Drivetime was designed well, it could be fine,” Atchley said. “You have to find the engagement sweet spot that keeps someone’s brain going without being so engaging that it takes resources away from paying attention to the road.”
Drivetime CEO Niko Vuori told CNN Business that Drivetime hadn’t been independently tested, but that he welcomes such research.
“We know we are on the right side of the safety argument,” Vuori said.
Last week Google investor Ilya Gelfenbeyn described Drivetime as a pioneer in safe, stimulating entertainment for drivers. Google and Amazon both declined to comment on the concerns experts have raised.
David Strayer, a University of Utah professor who researches distracted driving, said the distraction of Drivetime likely falls between listening to a book on tape, and talking on a hands-free cell phone. When comparing Drivetime with texting while driving, he called the app the lesser of two evils.
“We can’t all be goody two-shoes and sit in the car and do nothing, so maybe if it crowds out less safe behavior like texting that’s good,” Strayer said.
Other safety experts were less positive.
“We can’t see a safety benefit to having people play Jeopardy on the road through an app,” said Maureen Vogel, a spokeswoman for the National Safety Council, an organization devoted to ending preventable deaths. “We shouldn’t be encouraging drivers to do anything behind the wheel that could impede their ability to drive.”