Ford testers try to balance in-car safety, technology
BRYCE G. HOFFMAN
The Detroit News
Dearborn –In a laboratory beneath Ford Motor Co.’s Product Development Center, a team of scientists and technicians is using driving simulators to study how motorists interact with new, onboard technology and ensure that systems like Sync do not become too distracting.
The ubiquity of cellular telephones and the proliferation of in-car technologies such as navigation systems and voice-activated music players mean today’s car trip involves a lot more than just getting from Point A to Point B. But all of this technology has made driver distraction a concern.
Ford has created the Human Machine Interface Verification Laboratory — informally known as the “Distraction Lab” — to make sure new features make driving safer, not less safe.
“This is where we make the determination about what can or can’t go into a product,” said Jeff Greenberg, senior technical leader of vehicle design research and advanced engineering at Ford.
The lab includes a full-sized vehicle simulator that technicians can configure to match the interior layout of any Ford vehicle. They can then use the simulator to study how driving performance is affected by various actions.
Another system uses special goggles to measure how much time a driver looks away from the road when using things such as the navigation system. The same system can track how much information a driver can read off a screen in a single glance.
Using the results of these tests, Ford has made significant changes to systems such as Sync, the onboard computer connectivity and entertainment system it developed with Microsoft Corp. For example, drivers cannot manually scroll through their cell phone’s address book while driving.
Ford engineers also have modified the interface of some systems to make them more rapidly readable.
“This kind of research is going to become very important,” said safety expert Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies Inc. of Rehoboth, Mass. “Distracted driving is the hot issue in motor vehicle safety today.”
In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that distracted driving contributes to 80 percent of all road accidents.
Kane said much of that distraction comes from the technology drivers bring into the vehicle with them — like cell phones and music players. He said finding ways for motorists to control these technologies without taking their eyes off the road is one way to address the problem.
Ford says the average driver looks away from the road for two seconds while selecting a song using its Sync system, compared to 25 seconds using a handheld MP3 player.
But Greenberg says the biggest surprise he and his researchers have discovered is that younger drivers are more distracted by such technologies than older motorists. He said most experts assumed that teens, who have been surrounded by high-tech devices since infancy, would be better able to use them while driving.
“We found absolutely, positively, unambiguously that is bunk,” he said. The distraction level of adult drivers increased by a factor of four when they tried to dial a cell phone while driving. But the distraction level of teen drivers increased by a factor of 13.
“It’s very hard to get an experienced adult driver to pull their eyes away from the road,” he said.
© Copyright 2009 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.