Toyota tackles distracted driving

Nick DiUlio

The phenomenon of distracted driving can be as devastating as it is difficult to understand. Auto manufacturer Toyota hopes wants to help get a clearer picture of the problem.

Toyota is working with several universities and research institutions over the next several years to dissect the problem and hopefully curb its influence on car accidents.

Spearheaded by the car manufacturer’s Collaborative Safety Research Center, the focus on distracted driving is part of a larger effort by the automaker to enhance the design, testing and installation of automotive safety innovations. With a commitment of about $50 million, Toyota plans to focus not only on reducing driver distraction, but on protecting vulnerable people, including teens, seniors and pedestrians.

Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT's AgeLab, is leading a study on the connection between distracted driving and in-car voice controls.
Among Toyota's partners in the research are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Virginia Tech and the Wayne State University School of Medicine. In the end, the automaker intends to publish its research findings so the information will be available to federal agencies, the auto industry and university researchers.

Chuck Gulash, director of the Collaborative Safety Research Center, says: “We’re moving away from a traditional focus on proprietary research toward more openly sharing innovations that benefit the automotive industry and society as a whole.”

Considering recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the benefit to society could be rather significant. In 2010, more than 3,000 people died in distraction-related car crashes, the agency says.

To tackle several aspects of the phenomenon, Toyota has set up two studies.

The brains behind distracted driving

To better understand the cognitive nuances of driver distraction -- that is, what happens in the brain when it's preoccupied behind the wheel -- one of Toyota’ studies includes a three-year investigation that combines research in driver behavior, cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

The study will be led by Richard Young, research professor of psychiatry at Wayne State's medical school, and Li Hsieh, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders at Wayne State's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“It’s a very exciting study because there are a lot of hidden factors behind distracted driving that haven’t been fully explored,” Hsieh says. “We’re not only looking at this from the physical side of distraction, like using your cellphone behind the wheel, but from the neuroscience side as well.”

Hsieh says research historically has focused on distracted driving as one large pie. In conducting their study, however, she and Young will try to slice individual pieces of that pie. That can include everything from brain activity during conversations with a passenger, visual distractions and even daydreaming.

“We want to know what all of these individual pieces mean when we are driving,” Hsieh says. “And if we can better know what causes all of these distractions, it will hopefully contribute to safer vehicle design and more information for policymakers to decide whether some devices are safer than others.”

The demands of voice commands

At their best, in-vehicle voice controls are designed to decrease distraction. For instance, many cars now allow drivers to operate the radio, use a media player, make and receive phone calls, or search for a destination with simple voice commands. Just how effective these systems are in decreasing driver distraction, however, is the subject of a two-year study at MIT's AgeLab.

“When we use voice systems in a car, the eyes remain focused on the road, but that does not mean the mind is also focused on the road,” says AgeLab research scientist Bryan Reimer, director of the study.

According to Reimer, the study is the first of its kind to tangibly measure how distracting these systems may be and how automakers can design voice controls that minimize that distraction.

“There is no question in my mind that voice systems have a place in the car,” Reimer says. “But we want to know how to tailor those systems in the best way possible as opposed to just being satisfied with what we’ve already got.”

Comprising more than 100 participants -- half of whom will be trained in voice-control systems and half of whom will not -- the study will record physical and cognitive responses, such as heart rate data and brain activity.

Reimer says the study not only will help automakers design more efficient voice-control systems, but also contribute to ongoing work to develop industry guidelines for the technology.

“Just as we can become visually distracted, we can also become incredibly cognitively distracted,” Reimer says. “We’re leading the world in this type of psychological approach to voice controls, and I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what the results are.”

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