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Ford studies system to curb distracted driving

Jeff Greenberg.


The perils of bringing your "digital life" into your car is becoming increasingly more like the equivalent of what drinking and driving was decades ago. And much as built-in breathalyzers in steering wheels have been debated before, the concept of measuring drivers' biometrics aims to limit the distractions they impose on themselves.

Ford has been experimenting with what it calls "driver workload," and the basis for the research stems from the fact that drivers are impetuous when it comes to mobile devices. That's not the only focus, since the general idea is to measure heart rate through sensors in the steering wheel and respiration via sensors in the seatbelt to better understand a driver's condition.

Despite being entirely conceptual, this still might come off as Big Brother riding shotgun. It begs the question of what such a system would actually achieve. In an interview with Jeff Greenberg, senior technology leader of the lab working on the system, I got some insight into that.

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"What we're trying to do is not so much to understand more about what your driving situation is, but to help understand how you, as an individual, are being affected by the situation," says Greenberg.

He's quick to add that this isn't meant to be an imposition on the driver, meaning that he or she wouldn't be forced to "opt-in" while behind the wheel. And even though drivers of all stripes acknowledge the dangers inherent in staying connected behind the wheel, the fact is they'll do it to some extent anyway.

"Turning the phone off is the soundest advice, but many drivers are unwilling to do that," he says. "There's ways to be smarter about this by managing potential distractions and making driving safer in spite of their digital life being in the vehicle with them."

But what would happen to this data and what would it actually do? First, Greenberg insists that it's all processed in real time, and isn't recorded, shared or sent to some cloud-based platform. Instead, the data is meant to work in an ad hoc sense locally. For example, if a driver's heart and respiration rates were to indicate higher stress levels, the system could disable the driver's phone, blocking calls and text messages from getting through. It could even mute music as well.

Specific phone numbers could be white-listed – something parents would likely prefer – and the system would be scalable across a wide range of inputs by leveraging things like blind spot assist and adaptive cruise control to better understand the environment the driver is dealing with.

The system would naturally have to piggyback off Ford Sync, but it could be argued that Sync can be a driver distraction on its own. Greenberg's team studied how effective it would be to have the system turn off some of Sync's features, and the results "proved interesting."

"If you disable a function while a driver has already begun a task, it doesn't decrease the workload, it actually increases it in many cases," says Greenberg. "They'll keep monitoring the system to complete the task. You can use the system to prevent those features from being accessed in the first place, but again, you have to be careful because drivers find that, once an interface starts changing on them, the resulting confusion draws attention away from the road."

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