DEARBORN, MI --- Ford Motor Co. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are embarking on a plan to study driver workload and identify new opportunities to use in-vehicle technologies to improve driver safety by lowering stress.
While holiday shoppers recover from fighting long lines, crowded parking lots and icy roads, Ford and MIT researchers are focusing on how the car can potentially enhance overall human wellness, become an oasis from stressful situations, and increase driver attention and safety.
Partnering with MIT's renowned AgeLab, the project will identify specific stress-inducing driving situations, monitor a driver's reaction to the situations using biometrics, and evaluate methods to incorporate new stress-reducing features into the next generation of Ford products. A six-month effort beginning this January will focus on human interaction with a specially equipped 2010 Lincoln MKS, a vehicle already recognized for its advanced safety features.
"We strongly believe that driving can be made safer by reducing the stress load placed on a driver," said Jeff Rupp, Ford manager of active safety research. "Through the use of our existing technologies such as adaptive cruise control with collision warning or SYNC, our voice-activated communications system, we are proactively guiding drivers away from difficult situations.
"The goal of this program is to take this one step further by creating the most comfortable driving environment possible so that our driver is always relaxed, calm and able to perform at peak performance," added Rupp.
This current undertaking is the next step in an ongoing effort to study and, eventually, significantly improve driver wellness. Since 2004, Ford and MIT's AgeLab -- in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation's New England University Transportation Center -- have been working to develop vehicle systems that detect the state of a driver at key points in time. This project envisions using this information to adjust systems in the car in ways that reduce driver stress. One of the goals of this work is to help the driver recapture the wellness experience that driving once promised.
"Today's driver is feeling a greater level of anxiety than in the past, both from situations inside and outside the vehicle," said Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of MIT's AgeLab and the leader of this initiative since its outset. "This arises in part from the chronic stress in individuals' daily lives combined with longer commute times, increased driving demands due to traffic congestion and deteriorating infrastructure. By identifying specific situations and the physiological effect they have on the driver, we are seeking solutions that can bring the driver from a heightened stress level back to an optimal operational state and thereby make their commute safer and more comfortable, renewing the positive experience of driving and riding in an automobile."
By monitoring biometrics such as heart rate, skin conductivity and eye movement, researchers at MIT have been working to develop a specific set of parameters for an embedded detection system that could be engineered into future Ford vehicles.
"Increasing human-vehicle connectivity through biometrics may provide the next major breakthrough in vehicle safety and lead the development of aware vehicle systems," said Bryan Reimer, an MIT AgeLab research scientist working on the project.
The MIT AgeLab develops new ideas and technologies to improve the quality of life of older people. Coughlin said that "we have a unique opportunity to use new technology to help people live not just longer, but better across the lifespan." AgeLab's multidisciplinary team of engineers, psychologists, designers, clinicians and social scientists have been conducting research on wellness and wellbeing to better understand behavior in key areas including health, financial planning and driver safety.
The Lincoln MKS used for the project will provide MIT AgeLab researchers a rolling test vehicle with driver-assistance technology. Ford and MIT expect to conclude this phase of the study in July 2010. Findings of the study will be made public shortly after its conclusion.