Don't text while driving - but what about asking Watson?

Just imagine if you had the resources of a supercomputer at your beck and call.

Commentary - If someone were to text “DTWD” would you understand the acronym? A growing number of commuters are refusing to heed the call to “Don't Text While Driving.” According to the U.S. Department of Transportation nearly 80 percent of vehicular crashes in 2008 were caused by distractions, including texting while driving, resulting in more than half a million injured people.

Officials are now scrambling for a solution. Some have proposed in-car systems that prevent texting capabilities from being transmitted while drivers are in motion. I would suggest that another kind of innovation may help supply the answer...literally.

Enter Watson, a computing system (10 refrigerators in length) famous for processing human language through complex questions, and in turn responding with the correct answer in a matter of seconds.

Named after IBM's founder, Thomas J. Watson, Watson displayed its talents on one of television's most popular game shows, Jeopardy!, known for presenting contestants with multi-faceted clues that contain puns and other word play. For example, when asked to identify a “piece of wood from a tree, or to puncture with something pointed,” Watson easily and correctly answered “stick” unfazed by the conflicting sentence structure, one clue asking for a solution in noun form, the other in verb form. In a three-game match, Watson defeated Jeopardy! Champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

This revolutionary technology could serve as the foundation of a system encouraging safer driving practices. Imagine if rather than texting questions while en route, drivers could talk to Watson, almost like an audio encyclopedia.

How often do you find yourself lost while looking for a business you've recently read about, calculating in the back of your mind how much gas you've wasted circling the same block numerous times? If only you could ask your GPS, “What's the name of that French restaurant reviewed in The New York Times last week?” Watson technology could not only supply the name of the restaurant, but detailed directions as well.

Watson could make roads safer, eliminating the need to program addresses, search businesses or even pull out the newspaper while travelling. Instead, Watson could be used in unison with satellite tracking devices to ensure a safe and accurate trip to that five-star eatery.

A recent study confirms that people who text while driving are nearly 25 percent more likely to cause an accident, stemming from an average of five seconds spent looking at a screen prior to a collision. Additionally, 86 percent of young drivers admit to having texted while driving, sending an average of 23 text messages per month while behind the wheel. Teen participants also defended their driving habits by stating they didn't believe any harm would occur from participating in this type of driving behavior.

With the stakes this high, we must explore innovative solutions to reduce unnecessary distractions and advance safer driving habits. Watson’s Jeopardy! Debut heralds a new era of artificial intelligence, offering the promise of solving difficult problems quickly. This technology can ensure that drivers get the information they need, while never having to take their hands off the wheel.

Kal Gyimesi leads the development of new research and strategy at IBM’s Institute for Business Value. With over 20 years of experience, Kal works with various automotive and industrial clients to implement innovative and smarter business solutions. He received the IBV Global Excellence Award in 2009 and has been published in the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, AOL News, CNBC and the Richmond Times Dispatch.