VIRTTEX virtual reality machine is located at Ford’s Scientific Research Laboratory in Dearborn

by Jim Kerr

Much has been written about driving and talking on a cell phone at the same time. This apparently dangerous behaviour has even been banned in some US states. Very little research has actually been done on how bad this distraction is and how it compares to other driving distractions, such as changing radio stations or noise from the back seat. Any parent can tell you that children in the back seat can be extremely distracting, so how do we keep the driver’s attention on the road. Ford is starting to learn some answers.

One tool Ford is using for this research is called VIRTTEX (VIRtual Test Track EXperiment). This 10 million dollar virtual reality machine is located at Ford’s Scientific Research Laboratory in Dearborn, and it is big enough to fit a full size vehicle inside its 24 foot diameter carbon fibre dome. Inside the simulator’s dome, drivers find a flat black Ford Taurus with its engine, fuel system, and airbags removed.

For power, the VIRTTEX simulator has force feedback motors for brakes and steering, much like the home computer games, but the big power comes from a 400 horsepower motor that moves the simulator through six large hydraulic cylinders. Step on the throttle or the brakes and the computers controls the flow of oil through the rams so that the car feels like it is accelerating or stopping. Turn the steering and the same sensation occurs. Inside the dome, five projectors display a moving roadway and other vehicles onto the interior walls. It is like driving a real car, without the danger of actually crashing.

The real purpose of the simulator isn’t to test driving skill; it is to study the psychology of driving and how the driving environment affects our ability to drive safely. Since the VIRTTEX simulator was completed nearly a year ago, about 500 people from a cross section of age groups have been part of the distraction study. This is only a small sample, but the results have been surprising.

As you might guess, cell phone use is distracting, but not in ways you think. To do the testing, drivers are told to follow a blue Explorer in front of them on the highway and note any driving irregularities. Drivers are not told how fast to drive or at what distance to follow. During the study, drivers are asked to do simple tasks such as change radio stations, change a CD, dial home in a hands free phone, phone home on a portable cell phone, and even access voice mail. While drivers are performing these tasks, the computer monitors them for many things including distance behind the other vehicle and lane violations where their car has crossed into another lane.

Ford scientists are studying the psychology of driving and how the driving environment affects our ability to drive safely.

Interestingly, drivers below age 25 averaged a 1.2 second time gap between then and the vehicle in front, while drivers over age 45 averaged a 2.2 second gap. The recommended minimum safety gap for vehicles travelling at highway speed is 2 seconds. When asked to retrieve voice mail, adults experienced 2 1/2 lane change violations per hour while teens age 16 and 17 had 4 violations per hour. Experience allowed older drivers to prioritise tasks.

If no distracting tasks are required of the driver, 97% of actions happening around them were noticed, but when asked to dial a number on a hand held phone, adults missed 13% of other occurrences, and teens missed 55% of what was happening. Teens also dialled the phone fastest, sometimes twice as fast! They concentrated on dialing instead of sharing their concentration and had little concept of outside dangers.

Other cell phone studies have reported that hands-free and hand-held phones were no different in causing distractions. These studies used unstructured long cell phone conversations, but 90% of calls take less than 5 minutes and 75% are less than 3 minutes. In short conversations, Ford research shows hands-free phones have a big advantage, with zero lane violations occurring during operation.

Finally, research shows incoming calls are the most difficult to deal with because the driver cannot pick the time or place. Ford scientists are just beginning in their search for ways to reduce driver distractions. There is lots to study yet: night driving, heads up displays, navigation systems, and vehicle control locations. Sharing this information with government agencies and Ford designers will enable safer cars to be built in the future.

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