Driver Workload Estimator

Ford has been ahead of the curve when it comes to driver distraction – in both inviting potential sources of distraction into the car and then offering technological solutions to help keep drivers focused on the road. Ford's Sync and MyFord Touch systems are happy to make phone calls, play music from your phone, run smartphone apps, read text messages aloud, and allows you to manage almost all of it via voice activation.

However, as industry-leading as Sync's functionality may be, it's come under scrutiny from some safety researchers who insist that all such technology, even when it's voice-activated, is distracting. Ford certainly doesn't want its competitive advantage undermined, and with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration kicking around recommendations to combat distracted driving, proposed rules that could render navigation systems useless, the topic is certainly a hot one.

So that brings us to today's press release, in which Ford touts its research into what it's calling a "driver workload estimator." That five-dollar phrase is a convoluted way of saying the automaker is trying to figure out how to make its cars automatically block some of the functionality of Sync and MyFord Touch, especially incoming phone calls or text messages. Of course, Ford does not want this automatic activation of the do-not-disturb feature that's already part of MyFord Touch to make customers any more frustrated with the system than they already are. Thus the desire to incorporate biometric feedback into the system.

Ford says it can gather temperature, heart rate, and respiration through a special experimental steering wheel and seat belt. The car's computer could then use this information to augment data already coming from the rest of the vehicle to determine if it's not a good time to notify the driver that, say, her sister just accidentally butt-called her from the bar. While you could make the case that it's really never a good time for such a call, Ford is more concerned with keeping the phone from ringing when you're trying to merge into heavy freeway traffic.

And when might you be able to purchase such electronic wizardry? No time soon. We talked to Jeff Greenberg, Senior Technical Leader at Ford Research, and he told us that the company has no current production plans for the technology, as it's concerned about how customers will react to it. "We do have a lot to learn about what customers will accept," he said. Scroll down to read the full press release.
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Ford Research Developing Intelligent System to Help Drivers Manage Stressful Situations on the Road
  • Existing sensor signals for driver-assist systems can be combined in new ways to estimate workload on the driver based on traffic and road conditions
  • Ford researchers also are using biometric feedback through sensors in the steering wheel, seat and seat belt to provide a more complete model of driver stress levels
  • Driver workload estimation can be used to manage in-vehicle communications by helping minimize driver distractions during hectic conditions
DEARBORN, Mich., June 27, 2012 – With today's ever-increasing concern about driver distraction, engineers in the Ford Research and Innovation labs are developing ways to help the driver stay focused in busy situations by intelligently managing incoming communications.

"Ford has been a leader in delivering solutions for in-car communications and simplifying the user interface, and now we're researching ways to use the car's own intelligence to further help drivers," says Jeff Greenberg, senior technical leader of Ford Research and Innovation. "Vehicle control inputs, sensors, road conditions and biometric information such as a driver's pulse and breathing can all be used to create a driver workload estimation that can then help manage certain functions in demanding situations."

Data from the sensing systems of driver-assist technologies can be used to determine the amount of external demand and workload upon a driver at any given time including traffic and road conditions. In addition, Ford continues its health and wellness research with the development of a biometric seat, seat belt and steering wheel that can monitor the condition of the driver to help add an even more specific estimate of the driver's state of being.

The driver workload estimator is an algorithm using real-time data from existing sensors such as radar and cameras combined with input from the driver's use of the throttle, brakes and steering wheel. The result is an intelligent system enabling management of in-vehicle communications based on the assessed workload of the driving situation.

For example, the side-looking radar sensors used for the Blind Spot Information System (BLIS®) and the forward-looking camera for the Lane-Keeping System are on watch even when there is no active warning provided to the driver. These signals could indicate there is a significant amount of traffic in the lane that you are merging into while entering a highway.

Combine that knowledge with the fact that the driver has increased throttle pedal pressure to speed up, and the workload estimate could be high enough to determine it isn't a very good time for an incoming phone call to ring inside the cabin.

The car could intelligently apply the "Do Not Disturb" feature that is already available as part of MyFord® Touch, helping the driver stay focused on the road during the high-demand situation.

Monitoring driver biometrics

"In addition to using existing vehicle data to estimate demand on the driver, we're researching ways to get an even better understanding of the stress level of the driver," says Gary Strumolo, manager of vehicle design and infotronics, Ford Research and Innovation. "Biometric or health information of the driver can help us better tailor the experience when behind the wheel."

Turning new biometric sensors toward the driver will help to create a more complete picture of the driver workload. The research team has built a biometric seating buck to test a number of different sensors and gather data on how drivers respond to a variety of inputs for a driver behavior model.

The experimental system adds several sensors to the steering wheel rim and spokes to get more detailed driver information. Anyone who has used modern exercise equipment like treadmills and stair climbers will be familiar with the metal pads on the rim that can be used to measure the driver's heart rate.

Infrared sensors on the steering wheel monitor the palms of a driver's hands as well as his or her face looking for changes in temperature. A downward-looking infrared sensor under the steering column measures the cabin temperature to provide a baseline for comparing changes in the driver's temperature. The final sensor is embedded in the seat belt to assess the driver's breathing rate.

With a more complete picture of the driver's health and wellness blended with knowledge of what is happening outside the vehicle, the car will have the intelligence to dynamically adjust the alerts provided to the driver and filter interruptions. With the driver occupied in heavy traffic, the vehicle control system could increase the warning times for forward collision alerts and automatically filter out phone calls and messages, allowing the driver more time to respond. On the other hand, an alert driver on an open highway could receive incoming calls.

"While these features are still in research, they show significant opportunity for us to leverage data already being captured by the vehicle and apply an intelligent decision-making system to simplify the driving experience," adds Strumolo.