Confronting 'Age' Of Driver Distraction At MIT

By AutoObserver Staff May 4, 2011

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Inside the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bryan Reimer, Ph.D., is researching how cognitive demands and new vehicle technologies are affecting drivers of all ages. By evaluating subjects in simulated and on-road driving environments, Reimer seeks to develop new models and methods to measure human behavior behind the wheel of a car according to eye movements, visual perception and response measures. In advance of its May 24 safety conference, Edmunds.com visited Reimer’s lab to learn more about how his research is influencing our understanding of distracted driving.

AutoObserver.com (AO): We were just watching you in the MIT AgeLab driving simulator. What are you trying to research with this car?

Bryan Reimer (BR): In both the lab here, as well as similar vehicles out in the field, we look at measures such as visual attention, or eye tracking, to understand how people allocate their visual attention to the roadway in the interior of the vehicle. We look at psychophysiology measurements, such as heart rate and skin conductance, to see how demand levels of different tasks and technologies impact the body and impact people's decision making.

AO: While you were running the simulator we saw on the computer monitors different pixels focusing on the eyes. What are they showing?

BR: In terms of eye tracking there's really two types of behaviors we're looking at.
One, where do you glance? How much time do you spend looking off the road? Are those times greater than 1.6 or 2 seconds -- depending on what literature you read -- knowing that increased glances off the roadway are associated with accidents. In essence you're looking at something in the car and you do not perceive what's going on around you. Second, we're looking at the impact of cognitive demand on how people perceive information from the roadway. So as cognitive workload increases, we actually become much more focused on what's in front of us, and we look out the front of the window in the vehicle much like a dead stare.

AO: Is the issue of driver distraction more a reflection of a driver's behavior, or an overload of technology and electronic distractions in the car?

BR: It's both, in some sense. We have in some ways too much technology in the car, whether it's what's coming from the manufacturer,  or more importantly, what I'm bringing with me in the capabilities of smart phones, which can really eclipse what is provided by the vehicle manufacturers in terms of technology in the car, as well as from a behavioral perspective. We change our behaviors in positive and negative ways when technology intervenes.

 AO: How does drivers’ behavior change as they get older?

BR: With age we know that people generally make more appropriate decisions in the vehicle. They self regulate and take themselves out of situations where they perceive the risk is high. That includes not driving at night, avoiding left turns, driving during non–rush hour periods. In essence, they make themselves safer drivers by taking less risk. In younger groups, what we see is they don't have that level of judgment. They're “invincible,” per se. They can get out there and they can do it. And they don't necessarily have the performance and skill to make the decisions when and when not to drive. One thing that's incredibly interesting, though, is with age we become more distractible. So how does the influx of technology into the vehicle distract individuals differently as they age? And that's one of the questions we're really interested here in the lab.

AO: A common perceptions is with the young generation there are so many distractions, nobody has any attention span anymore. But you're finding it's also true with older generations?

BR: One of the problems with attention and age is maintaining focus for an extended period of time. So in some sense, both the teens and older adults have something in common. They are more distractible than we are in mid-age, and distractible by different things would probably be another way of framing it. The social and emotional connectivity of conversations and text messaging definitely has a high degree of relevance to the younger generations, while older adults may be more distractible by alarms, flashing lights, different things in the roadway environment around them. They have a hard time ignoring that, where young adults are used to seeing lots of lights that glimmer around them.

AO: You showed us the AgeLab’s car with the automatic parallel-parking technology. What are you studying with that car?

BR: What we looked at … was the 2010 Lincoln MKS that's equipped with Ford's active-park feature, which is an incredibly interesting technology from a human-behavior perspective. It takes over steering control as you parallel park the vehicle. Here is the first time many people have taken their hands off the wheel and began to trust the technology. And in some of our work here we've shown that with appropriate training people can begin to trust that technology rather quickly. One of the areas we're looking at right now is how does different levels of education about the technology begin to impact their trust and their desire to use it?

AO: How do you get people to adapt to this sort of technology?

BR: Well, I think we go back to the education component. We're not going to employ automation in the vehicle and get people to trust this technology and change into it instantly. We're going to have to do some very complex and very innovative training and education.  Automation might take a role, but some people like to drive. Some people enjoy driving. They enjoy the feeling of driving. Other people would prefer giving up control. How do you get them to do that and how do you teach them how to do that?

AO: What about drivers in their 60s and 70s who have been driving the same way for decades? Can they adapt to new technology or are their driving habits so ingrained they're just never going to change?

BR: It's an interesting question. Some of the research really does show that older adults can learn. The key is providing them with a reason, a very clear reason why they need to learn.

AO: One thing we've found in our safety research is when you develop technology that solves one safety issue, it can create a different safety issue. Do you think there should be an expanded education component to teach people how to operate this technology, or do you think more technology could help solve faults in other technology?

BR: I don't think technology combating technology is really going to be an effective solution, although we do see many instances of that today. I think some form of education is desperately needed in the U.S. when it comes to automotive purchases and automotive technology. If you buy a vehicle in Germany, the experience of taking delivery of that vehicle tends to be a major occurrence. We learn about all the systems in the vehicle. In the U.S., maybe you get an hour, maybe two with a delivery agent, giving you some of the highlights, helping you pair the phone to the voice system. And then here's the 200-, 300-, 400-page manual written in part by a legal team. That's not how to learn how these technologies work in the car. That's not how to increase your trust in technology, increase your ability to understand the designer's mental model of how to work with this technology. So, a much more formal education or in-vehicle tutorials need to be developed to help people really benefit from what the manufacturers are putting in the vehicle today. By and large, people aren't using a lot of what's available to them in the car. They don't understand it.

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