Testing IT's effect on drivers
- By Paula Shaki Trimble
- Aug 07, 2000
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."