Driver distraction from connectivity pose conflicting challenges

  • 19-Dec-2013 04:38 EST
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Toyota's DAR-V (Driver Awareness Research Vehicle) is a Sienna minivan modified to test anti-distraction technologies.

Screaming children in back seats have been classic examples of intermittent driver distractions for as long as cars have been family vehicles. However, as DVD players and connectivity in the form of smartphones and tablets have quieted children, telematics at the driver's level has raised anew the issue of driver distraction. In addition, many of the people who develop the functionality, both on board and for smartphones, now are facing a challenge to minimize its effects on drivers' abilities to safely operate cars.

The U.S NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) dictum, "eyes on the road, hands on the wheel," has become a developmental mantra, but solving the problems without disabling the connectivity features that people expect is a major challenge. A forum at the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show looked at the issues, which raised the question of mental awareness, not just "eyes ahead." And Toyota showed a test vehicle it built to evaluate corrective technologies.

First, the industry has to figure out what is contributing to distraction and to what extent. Some seem obvious, such as texting while driving, reading emails, operating the navi features, etc. But the problem seems to go well beyond the obvious, and the overall issue is being described as "cognitive overload," or at what point is the driver trying to comprehend and deal with too much.

There is sure to be variability among drivers, but simulator testing is being done using sensors and cameras that look at eye and head movements, skin sensors that measure arousal, and EEG evaluation of brainwaves. By tying these data into the surrounding environment, the extent of driver awareness and distractive triggers can be determined.

Cognitive overload

"There is good data that picking up a phone and using it (while driving) is problematic," said Bruce Mehler, Research Scientist at MIT. However, although "we don't want people picking up a phone," conceded NHTSA Counsel Kevin Vincent, he added that, in its efforts to reduce distraction, "NHTSA can't regulate handhelds, and the FCC doesn't regulate their safe use." NHTSA can only issue guidelines, he said.

A study by AAA (American Automobile Association) also raised questions about the safety of hands-free connectivity, with research it conducted with the University of Utah using simulators and on-road testing. That study, which has been controversial, focused on cognitive overload. It concluded that, even if drivers were looking forward, use of hands-free devices and other connectivity systems took so much concentration and special effort, even if for an instant, drivers could be mentally overloaded and missing visual cues. They look ahead but have a form of tunnel vision, and they do not necessarily see much of what's on the road ahead including red lights and pedestrians, do not glance at side and rearview mirrors, or see warnings from such features as blind spot detection systems.

AAA researchers indicate it actually may take more concentration to deal with onboard connectivity than a handheld device. Even voice commands were cited as an issue, that talking to a computer requires more precision than to a person, and that understanding a synthetic voice is harder, even with systems that made no errors, the AAA study found.

This contrasted with the results of MIT studies, which showed voice commands working with far less demand on the individual than anticipated, and in 80-90% of the time the computer recognition of the motorist's voice was good.

Motorist's driving personality 

The motorist's driving personality also may be a factor. Mehler said that the MIT study indicated that drivers who were heavy users of smartphones and telematics were found to drive faster and change lanes more often than infrequent users even if they didn't have their cell phones during tests. Age of the drivers was cited as a negative factor by Toyota, which helped fund the MIT study. Furthermore, older drivers were likely to more commonly orient their bodies toward the message center.

Chuck Gulash, Director of the Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center, said that drivers in general would slow down their cars, change lanes less frequently, and increase their distance from other cars while issuing voice commands. However, he said, in a significant number of cases, the amount of time drivers took their eyes off the road was greater than the researchers expected.

Another major issue cited was the pace at which connected vehicle technology is changing. "There's new safety technology that has a lot of potential, but drivers need to understand it," Mehler said. He raised the possibility of driver retraining or perhaps at least some training on a new car at the dealership. Forum audience members asked about the increasing availability of heads-up displays and the possible use of such wearable devices as Google Glass, but at this stage there was just speculation of their effect.

NHTSA's Vincent called distraction a complex issue, and he saw no way to eliminate all cognitive load, citing the issues raised in the AAA study. He said that one concern that arose at NHTSA was the idea of a navigation system lockout.

Touch-screen systems, Vincent added, raise the issue of the amount of effort and concentration to enter a destination address, and if any method were locked out while driving, "the motorist might just pull out his smartphone," so the net result would be the same.

Apparently anticipating this issue, an exhibitor at the 2013 SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show in Las Vegas, Access2 Communications, featured a device called "TextBuster," which when installed (out of driver's sight) would emit a blocking signal for all data functions (email, text, and browser) for a registered phone. It would not affect phone calls, and the emails and texts would be received for review when the phone is out of the car. The device is intended as part of a parental monitoring system for a car loaned to a young son or daughter, but the basic principle of restricted access could be applied to an original equipment system.

The type of distraction was raised in data from a Nielsen study of the in-car behavior of smartphone users. Although the Number 1 use was for a phone call, email, texting, and Internet browsing followed. And the fourth most accessed website was Amazon, which indicates that connected drivers are in a shopping mode much of the time.

Toyota, Microsoft efforts

The Toyota project is one aimed somewhat broadly to look at and test possible solutions to distraction. The test vehicle, a cooperative program with Microsoft, is a Sienna minivan using a modified version of MIcrosoft's Xbox Kinect controller. It is based on the gaming device's camera and depth sensor, and it's capable of interpreting gestures in 3-D. It also can support facial and voice recognition, so it can begin by recognizing the driver as he walks up to the car.

At that point, based on trip information stored in memory, it may identify the driver's likely trip and, because of traffic or road construction, determine a new route and estimated time. It also can note low-fuel level and generate a warning as well as provide a reminder of an errand from an electronic calendar.

All these data are then projected on a side window that in this experimental vehicle has a tinted PDLC (polymer displayed liquid crystal) material chosen after early attempts to use LCD (liquid crystal display) were scrapped when the material proved difficult to cut without breakage. A projector in the headliner produces the message on the tinted area. This kind of information addresses priorities before the driver even enters the car, and the driver can make trip decisions with hand gestures or use a touchpad on the keyfob as a controller.

Inside the Sienna, Toyota research will evaluate strategies for relieving the driver's workload. If there is a right-side passenger, for example, a navigational task might be directed to him. If there are rear-seat passengers, they may be assigned to change radio stations and make Climate Control adjustments. The overall intent is to give the driver confidence that he has a working "partnership" with the car controls and can trust them to figure out how to accomplish what he wants or needs to be done.

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