Ford Motor Co. will try to quantify how distracting in-vehicle cell phones, navigation systems and laptops are to drivers.
"Ford will use the simulator to discover the safest ways to equip vehicles with communication devices and other comfort and convenience items,'' said Jeff Greenberg, chief of the simulator lab.
Ford's move comes as concern about in-vehicle distraction mounts and some states consider laws to outlaw cell phones in moving vehicles. Driver inattention was blamed for 10.3 percent of 37,043 fatal crashes in 1999, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"We hope this will lead to industrywide standards,'' said Helen Petrauskas, Ford vice president of environmental and safety and engineering.
The Ford simulator will measure vehicle data on steering, speed control and braking when the driver is using various devices. Five in-car cameras will record the driver's hand, eye and foot movements.
"Typically we would want to know, how many times do you go over a lane marker, how much do you vary within your lane,'' Greenberg said.
"We will also be looking at where you are looking, how often you scan your mirrors and whether that behavior changes when you are being read an e-mail message or talking on a hands-free cellular phone.
Said Greenberg: "All of the data which gets to the question of what drivers do and how to develop standards will be shared."
"Evaluations of specific Ford products where we are trying to decide how to design features into specific products we will keep to ourselves.''
The so-called Virttex simulator, for Virtual Test Track Experiment, will allow subtle measurements, Petrauskas said.
"If the vehicle in front of you brakes suddenly, how long does it take you to take your foot off the accelerator and put it on the brake? How much pressure do you apply to that brake and how do those three things differ depending on what you are doing?'' she said.