There is no question about what project Ford Motor Co. will run first on its new $10 million driving simulator.
Ford's cockpit simulator, dubbed VIRTTEX, eventually will study driving dynamics and consumer preferences.
But when the simulator opens in the U.S. city of Dearborn, Michigan, in April, Ford researchers will quickly intensify their study of driver distraction. Industry critics fear that poorly designed communications gear - such as e-mail, navigation, entertainment and Internet access - could cause accidents as distracted motorists fail to heed traffic conditions.
Jeff Greenberg, the Ford technical specialist in charge of the simulator, says automakers must solve distraction problems. Otherwise they will never see the huge revenues they expect from telematics services. 'The telematics industry really needs to get some of these issues settled to see if it's going to grow as some people thought it would,' he says.
How it works
Participants will sit at the wheel of a car in the simulator, which replicates the forward and sideways movements of driving. The simulator will project images of roads and other vehicles on large screens around the cockpit. The drivers will operate telematics devices while 'driving.' Researchers will track subjects' head and eye movements, as well as how well they control the vehicle.
Ford has an ambitious timetable. The first VIRTTEX study will begin in April, producing data by summer's end. Ford's goal is to develop internal standards for telematics safety this year. It will publish its data and push for provisional industry standards in the United States by year end, he says.
Greenberg says the simulator results will benefit all automakers. 'This is the sort of data that is going to form the foundation of real standards that are based on science,' he says.
Regulation: 'near Impossible'
Other automakers are not sure. Jon Bucci, national manager for the Net Car team at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., says new technologies require flexibility, not fixed rules. With its 'significant amount of experience in Japan,' Toyota is likely to develop its own guidelines, he says.
Peter Patrone, manager of advanced product planning for Mercedes-Benz USA Inc., says a consensus among automakers would be valuable. But consumer use of new devices is likely to outpace the industry, he says. 'What is happening is that people are taking whatever little devices they have into cars - personal digital assistants, personal computers - you name it. As technology continues to evolve rapidly, it's going to be darn near impossible to regulate all of this.'
Paul Green, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, says several groups are developing telematics guidelines. In Japan, automakers follow the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association's voluntary rules. The European Union has issued general guidelines. In the United States, groups such as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Federal Highway Administration and the Society of Automotive Engineers are at work. Efforts by the SAE and International Standards Organization are likely to be the most influential, Green says.
An old problem
Driver distraction is nothing new. As Mercedes-Benz's Patrone puts it, motorists do 'everything from beauty preparation to eating meals to reading newspapers' while driving. But the complexity of some telematics functions increases the risk.
Industry experts often say voice recognition systems will remove distractions. But voice recognition still places mental demands on drivers, notes Green, who will take part in Ford's experiments. Moreover, research has found an oddity of human behavior. Drivers using voice-activated systems tend to make eye contact with the microphone and speaker. Apparently it is a social response, he says.
Green advocates two steps. One is the 15-second recommendation, which would discourage any task that takes the driver's vision away from the road for more than 15 seconds. The SAE is considering this concept.
The second step is a long-term one. Green favors developing computerized workload manager controls. These would evaluate demand on the driver, blocking the operation of communications devices at dangerous moments.
A workload manager would use adaptive cruise control to sense other vehicles. Using headlights and wipers would indicate poor visibility. The traction control system would evaluate road conditions. Other data sources would include the throttle and brakes.
The technology soon will be available. But Green says researchers lack funds to develop workload managers. Such research could gain momentum in April when Ford puts a Taurus into the VIRTTEX simulator.
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