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Tech Talk: Less fear, more focus

Ford engineers are working on ways to help the driver stay focused in busy situations by using the sensing systems of driver-assist technologies already available in cars.

Published July 13, 2012

You probably don’t need to be told that driving can be a stressful environment, especially if you’re one of the thousands of commuters who drive into and out of the city every day.

On top of the usual traffic hassles, automakers have been accused of adding to drivers’ already-substantial stress levels by loading up their vehicles with more and more-complex warning, information and communication systems.

From alerts to tell you when there’s a vehicle in your blind spot (I know, Wheels’ Jim Kenzie says there’s no such thing as a blind spot), to driving directions from your Nav system, to notification that you’ve got email waiting, there’s always something vying for your attention, beyond the basic task of driving.

Several manufacturers are taking steps to address that issue, primarily by trying to simplify the operation of some of those attention-grabbing systems.

Ford, which has been at the forefront of the in-car communications movement — and taken its lumps for doing so — is going a step further.

Engineers in the company’s research and innovation labs are working on ways to help the driver stay focused in busy situations by using the sensing systems of driver-assist technologies already available in cars.

“Vehicle control inputs, sensors, road conditions and biometric information, such as a driver’s pulse and breathing, can all be used to create a driver workload estimation that can then help manage certain functions in demanding situations,” says Jeff Greenberg, senior technical leader of Ford Research and Innovation.

Ford researchers have developed a driver-workload algorithm using real-time data from sensors such as radar and cameras, combined with input from the driver’s use of the throttle, brakes and steering wheel.

The result is an intelligent system enabling management of in-vehicle communications based on the assessed workload of the driving situation.

For example, the side-looking radar sensors used for Ford’s Blind Spot Information System and the forward-looking camera for its Lane-Keeping System are active even in situations when there is no specific warning provided to the driver.

These signals could indicate that there is a high level of traffic in the lane that you are merging into while entering a highway.

Combine that knowledge with the fact that the driver has increased pressure on the accelerator pedal to speed up and the workload estimator could determine that it isn’t a very good time for an incoming phone call.

The car could then apply a “Do Not Disturb” feature, postponing the phone call and helping the driver stay focused on the road during that high-stress situation. “Do Not Disturb” is a feature that can already be activated manually as part of the MyFord Touch communication system.

“In addition . . . we’re researching ways to get an even better understanding of the stress level of the driver,” says Gary Strumolo, manager of vehicle design and infotronics.

Focusing new biometric sensors on the driver will help to create a more complete picture of the driver workload. To that end, Ford’s research team has built a biometric seating buck to test a number of different sensors and gather data on how drivers respond to various inputs.

This experimental system uses sensors on the steering wheel rim and spokes to get more detailed information — similar to the metal pads on exercise equipment such as treadmills and stair climbers that can measure the user’s heart rate.

Infrared sensors on the steering wheel monitor the palms of a driver’s hands, as well as his or her face, looking for changes in temperature. A downward-looking infrared sensor under the steering column measures the cabin temperature to provide a baseline for comparing changes in the driver’s temperature.

Another sensor embedded in the seat belt can assess the driver’s breathing rate.

With a more complete picture of the driver’s health and wellness blended with knowledge of what is happening outside the vehicle, the car will have the intelligence to dynamically adjust alerts provided to the driver and to filter interruptions.

In heavy traffic, for example, the vehicle control system could increase the warning times for forward collision alerts and automatically filter out phone calls and messages, allowing the driver more time to respond to external situations.

“While these features are still in research, they show significant opportunity for us to leverage data already being captured by the vehicle and apply an intelligent decision-making system to simplify the driving experience,” says Strumolo.

Don’t expect to see all these features on the car you buy tomorrow — but maybe the day after tomorrow?

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