June 1999


How will drivers respond to heavy information “traffic”?

Dodge Intrepid
Driver’s seat view from the Dodge Intrepid, outfitted by ORNL to study information “overload.”
The “intelligent transportation systems” in cars of the future could deluge drivers with information. For example, while watching the road, they may see a map and verbal messages on a head-up display, which is a virtual dashboard projected near the top of the windshield that stays in their peripheral vision. They may hear computer voices telling them how to get around traffic to reach a destination faster or how to avoid a collision in time. They may even get messages from home and the office.

All of this and drive the car too.

This year, ORNL will be determining how 40 drivers respond to such automobile-based information technologies, using a DOE research vehicle and a driving simulator. The research vehicle, a white 1999 Dodge Intrepid, has been outfitted with sensors, instruments, and computers integrated and installed by Ron Harris of ORNL’s Instrumentation and Controls Division. The reactions of the drivers will be studied by human-factors expert Dan Tufano of ORNL’s Computer Science and Mathematics Division. The research is supported by ORNL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program.

“New information delivery systems are designed to make it easier for the driver to navigate through traffic to a final destination and to operate the car more safely to avoid accidents,” Tufano says.

“Ironically, some information systems may distract and startle drivers, making driving less safe. To evaluate the effectiveness and safety of these systems, we will be collecting data on the responses of drivers in various highway situations, using both the research vehicle and a driving simulator.”

Drivers of the research vehicle will wear physiological monitors linked wirelessly to the car’s data acquisition system. The monitors will measure the driver’s heart rate, skin conductivity and muscle tension, all of which signal the extent of a person’s nervous reaction. Wheel, steering wheel, and global positioning system sensors will indicate the speed, direction and location of the vehicle on the road at any given time. Six miniature video cameras will allow the researchers to see the driver’s hands and face and the forward and rear roadway scenes. An integrated data acquisition and storage system in the car’s trunk will collect and “time stamp” the vehicle, roadway, driver, and warning system data. Thus, the researchers will have information on events occurring inside and outside the car at any one point in time.

The test car has a radar headway collision warning system and adaptive cruise control, a collision warning system that covers the left-side blind spot and a video-based lane tracker and roadway departure warning system.

These systems collect data and, through beeping tones and flashing lights, warn the driver of an imminent collision that can be avoided by a quick response. They also can be hooked up to the car’s throttle so they can automatically adjust the accelerator to help the driver avoid an accident.

The vehicle will also be equipped with an intelligent transportation system data bus—a computer network that handles information from the engine, vehicle, navigation and collision-avoidance warning systems—and communications devices, such as a cell phone or pager. A filter made possible by the data bus prioritizes messages so that the driver receives the most urgently needed information first.

“For example,” says one of the developers of the data bus, Phil Spelt of CSMD, “messages needed to help you avoid an accident and remind you to take the next exit precede the message about the cancellation of tomorrow’s staff meeting.—Carolyn Krause