Driving to Distraction

Ford studies how gadgets take our attention off the road

Sitting behind the wheel of a black Taurus in Dearborn, Mich., I watch the car on the road ahead of me intermittently veering out of its lane. The highway is curving sharply. I'm trying to mind the cars behind me in the rear-view mirror. So far, so good. "Now make a call on your cell phone," my passenger urges. "You could ask for a weather report or get a stock quote." Uh-oh. I'm frazzled, and we haven't even gotten to the ice, fog, or the deer darting across the highway.

Good thing I'm driving through virtual landscapes where I can do little damage. In fact, despite the vivid illusion of motion, this Taurus has no engine, transmission, suspension, or gas tank. Rather, it is bolted to the floor of Ford Motor Co.'s $10 million Virtual Test Track Experiment driving simulator. The ice, the deer, and all the rest are virtual. And my co-pilot is Jeff Greenberg, director of the VIRTTEX program.

Ford built the simulator to help analyze something that's critical to safety but is tricky to measure, especially in real-life highway situations: driver distraction. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that 25% of all crashes are distraction-related. New York state prohibits the use of handheld cell phones while driving, and a dozen or so other states are mulling similar bans. Regulators are trying to sort out just how we get distracted by the gadgets in our cars, as well as the variety of other activities that engage drivers and their passengers.

Cell phones, pagers, and handheld computers are only the best-known distractions. A host of new "telematic" devices are being packed into cars, such as screen-based navigation systems, interactive voice services like General Motors Corp.'s OnStar, and dashboard entertainment consoles that control everything from AM/FM/CD audio to 100-channel digital satellite radios, MP3 players, and DVD players. Then there are newer technologies -- such as dashboard Internet access for checking e-mail, news, or traffic.

Which of these pose the greatest road danger, and what can be done about it? Ford created the VIRTTEX simulator, one of the world's most sophisticated, to find out. The auto maker's goal is to improve the design of its own vehicles and to provide useful data for the growing policy debate on distractions, Greenberg says. That could allow Ford to influence the future of telematic add-ons, for example. Especially in times of shrinking profit margins, carmakers have a huge incentive to learn how these lucrative options can be used more safely.

The simulator at the heart of Ford's program resembles a two-story tall sci-fi spider. The white pod is mounted on six giant hydraulic pistons that tilt, shake, and sway to create a compelling feeling of a car in motion. Graphics chips borrowed from video games and hydraulic motion gear designed for amusement-park simulator rides give test subjects a 300-degree road view and a sense of turning, accelerating, and braking -- in torrential rain, on treacherous ice, or in almost any other bad driving condition.

Throttle, steering, and brakes are connected to a computer, which coordinates the simulator's reaction and measures driver responses. Digital cameras and lasers track the driver's eye movements. "We look at how people process information and how quickly," Greenberg says. The 440-horsepower hydraulic system is one of VIRTTEX' unique features. The pumping and swaying of the hydraulic legs provides the 20% of driver input that isn't visual -- the sense of motion and G-forces that make simulated driving feel so real that conditioned responses take over.

Greenberg says Ford is the only auto manufacturer in North America with an interactive full-motion simulator for research. The federal government owns an even more complex $80 million simulator operated by the University of Iowa. DaimlerChrysler runs a distraction simulator in Berlin, and Mazda Motor Corp. has one in Yokohama, Japan.

Other carmakers are taking different approaches. GM has invested $100,000 so far in a project with Wayne State University in Detroit that uses magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the effect of distractions on drivers' brains. Chrysler engineers, working with students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, last year built a concept car that uses an onboard computer to shield drivers from distraction. When it senses road conditions or driver responses that indicate a demanding driving situation, it automatically diverts incoming cell-phone calls to voice mail.

So how does Ford's system measure driver distraction? Test subjects are observed during one-hour sessions behind the wheel. "We don't have a distraction meter that we can stick on the back of your head," Greenberg says. Instead, VIRTTEX creates so-called driving events -- such as that car that kept swerving in front of me. The driver is told to click the turn signal every time he or she observes an anomaly. "That allows us to measure how many events you miss," Greenberg says. From a nearby control room, operators can also monitor how many times a distracted driver strays from his lane and how well his car tracks the road.

Ford is already reaching some surprising conclusions. Researchers discovered that the vehicle-handling skills of 16-year-olds, despite their quick reflexes, were on a par with the oldest drivers it tested -- those whose skills may be impaired by age. So much for the myth of video-game-adept, multitasking young folk. The average VIRTTEX driver, when not distracted, misses just 3% of the simulated events. Adults asked to dial a handheld cell phone miss about 14%. But teens miss a frightening 54% of road events, seemingly because their eyes stay glued to the keypad -- unlike adults, who look up often.

Indeed, electronic distractions pose the greatest risk to young, inexperienced drivers, who tend to give themselves less time to respond to dangerous conditions. When instructed to "keep a safe following distance," the youngest drivers allow an average of just 1.3 seconds of stopping distance from the car ahead, "leaving themselves little room to correct for errors," the researcher says. Experienced adults maintain at least a 2.2-second gap, or about 90 extra feet of stopping distance at 65 miles per hour.

Taken all together, these findings led Ford to recommend a ban on cell-phone use by novice drivers while behind the wheel -- a move also urged by federal safety regulators. Maine and New Jersey already forbid novice drivers to use handheld phones while driving.

Ford has also concluded that for adult drivers, hands-free cell phones are safer than handhelds, at least for brief conversations. Voice-mail retrieval from a handheld cell interferes significantly with driving. But completing the same task with a hands-free phone diverts so little attention "it's indistinguishable from normal driving," Greenberg says. Incoming calls -- regardless of whether the phone is handheld or voice-activated -- were a major distraction, Ford learned.

Earlier distraction research has led to innovations such as putting thumb controls for the audio system on the steering wheel. An earlier simulator also helped evaluate the control pod on the 1996 Taurus -- an oval panel closely packed with everything from radio to heating buttons -- to ensure that it didn't make drivers fumble. (While it didn't, consumers nixed its futuristic styling.) These days, Ford spends a lot of time studying heads-up displays that project enhanced views of the road onto the inside of the windshield, using technologies such as night-vision equipment.

Of course, even eliminating every possible electronic preoccupation wouldn't dispel driver distraction. A study released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety this summer ranked electronic devices well below such distractions as rubber-necking, reaching for sunglasses, talking to a passenger, or eating. And when it comes to the biggest factor driving parents to distraction, Ford admits that it's helpless: Sorry, no solution to squabbling siblings.

By Kathleen Kerwin in Dearborn, Mich.

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