Testing IT's effect on drivers

The Transportation Department and private industry have invested heavily

in the development of new information systems for drivers to use in their

cars or trucks. Now one branch of the agency has begun to study how those

technologies can distract drivers.

In October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

plans to kick off a major research program that will study firsthand the

effects of driver distraction using the National Advanced Driving Simulator.

The $50 million simulator, designed by a team led by TRW Inc.'s Systems

and Information Technology Group and installed at the University of Iowa,

enables researchers to put an entire vehicle inside a 24-foot projection

dome. Fifteen projectors, which provide a 360-degree field of view, show

computer-generated images of a highway and surrounding traffic that change

in response to control inputs from the vehicle.

As a test subject steers the vehicle, the driver feels subtle sensations

and hears sounds a car makes when rounding a bend or coming to a stop, said

H. Keith Brewer, director of NHTSA's Office of Human- Centered Research.

Between the car and the dome is a hexapod that creates roll, pitch and vertical


"It will allow us to do things we could never do on the highway because

of the risk of hurting somebody," Brewer said.

NHTSA first plans to study the effect that new and planned technologies

have on driver distraction. Drivers now can make phone calls, send faxes

and e-mail, obtain route guidance, view infrared images on a heads-up display,

operate multimedia entertainment systems, and surf the Internet. Driver

error, which includes driver distraction, is responsible for more than 75

percent of motor vehicle crashes, said Rosalyn Millman, deputy administrator


Hands-free cell phones are only a partial solution because the problem

involves sensory and cognitive distraction, Brewer said. Sensory distraction

occurs when a driver's eyes are off the road or hands are off the wheel,

he said. Cognitive distraction, when a driver is engaged in conversation

with a passenger or on a hands-free cell phone, may be more dangerous because

the driver's attention is not focused on the road, he said.

To study the risks of both types of distraction, NHTSA needed the most

realistic simulator it could create, Brewer said. The system's developers

modified a mid-size car, a full-size car, a sport utility vehicle and a

heavy truck. The engine and drivetrains were removed from the four vehicles

and replaced with computers and devices that simulate driving. In the test

dome, each vehicle cab is mounted on four high-frequency actuators that

produce the road roughness typically experienced when driving on a well-worn

route. The audio effects were recorded from actual vehicles.

The simulator uses eight parallel computers and real-time scheduling

software. A steering command in the vehicle is sent to the image generator

and audio subsystem as well as to the hardware the simulator rests on, Brewer

said. "There are a lot of rinky-dink simulators with a chair and monitor,"

he said. "We wanted the exact ergonomics and controls of a vehicle."


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