June 14, 2002

Volvo studies in-car distractions

Goteburg, Sweden – To ensure that the increasing amount of information available to drivers in today’s automobiles does not compromise safety, Volvo is conducting new research projects into how information can be presented without distracting the driver and compromising safety.

“Since we presented the Volvo SCC at the Detroit motor show, I have often been asked whether all this information and warning technology will not be too much for the average driver. My answer? Yes, of course it is possible that there can be too much information. Evaluating this is one of the main challenges for our research,” says Christer Gustafsson, safety engineer at Volvo Cars.

Volvo’s research centres on two concepts: How should the information be presented? This includes the design of displays and their position in the car to make them user-friendly. The second concern is how the information should be sorted. If there is a heavy flow of information, can the car help the driver by prioritizing certain information and delaying other information?

The Volvo SCC concept car distinguishes between different types of information. The information from the car to the driver is shown on a large display in the instrument panel. This includes camera images and warnings related to the driving task, in addition to trip data. Activity initiated by the driver and not directly related to the driving task, such as controlling the audio unit or the phone, is presented on a display on the upper part of the centre console.

Prioritizing driver information is the nucleus of a research and development project called Intelligent Driver Information Manager (IDIM). Using a number of driving parameters such as movement of the steering wheel, throttle and so on, IDIM can sense when the driver has to focus on driving and when any distraction — in the form of a phone call, a voice or other message – could jeopardize driving safety.

IDIM then gives driving safety top priority and delays incoming phone calls or messages so that they are presented later, when the driving situation is less demanding.

“IDIM is an excellent illustration of the way information can be sorted and prioritized to make driving safer. The system can also improve the potential for the safe use of technology such as the phone and other messaging systems. An integrated phone in combination with IDIM creates totally different opportunities for telephony in cars than a phone lying loose on the passenger seat,” says Gustafsson.

Volvo Cars has also tackled the challenge of measuring the way different kinds of information affect driver attention.

Currently, several methods are available for measuring mental workload. These methods can be divided into three groups: subjective measurements, performance measurements and physiological measurements.

Peripheral Detection Task (PDT), a performance measurement, has been chosen for further studies. PDT is used to register changes in peripheral vision. Increasing mental workload is associated with a reduction in the driver’s visual field.

An experiment has been performed to examine whether PDT discriminates between different levels of mental workload for the driver. Twenty-four subjects participated in an on-road experiment.

A navigation system was used to provide the drivers with route information visually, verbally or both visually and verbally together. A memorized route was used as baseline. The drivers’ PDT performance was measured and the results show that PDT is sensitive to mental workload compared with other measurement methods. This makes PDT promising as an evaluation tool for new in-vehicle information systems.

Volvo Cars’ parent company, the Ford Motor Company, has opened a new high-tech US$10 million driving simulator laboratory called VIRTTEX to study driver work load and distraction issues related to new in-vehicle electronic devices. The new facility allows researchers to measure a driver’s ability to cope with common traffic situations while using cellular phones, navigation systems and other in-car equipment. This simulator is the Ford Motor Company’s first full-scale, moving-base driving simulator and it is the most capable device of its kind currently owned by any automotive manufacturer in North America.

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