AVATRUCK: Scientists working on vehicles that change themselves

BOSTON, Mass. — Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working with the Ford Motor Company to see if it’s possible to produce vehicles smart enough to measure a driver’s emotional state and react accordingly.

Seriously. We’re talking a car (or truck) that could, for instance, start massaging a driver’s back when an onboard sensor determines that he’s getting a little too uncomfortable — like, say, those times when your white knuckling it while creeping along the 401 across the top of Toronto on a Friday afternoon. 

Or maybe automatically alter the in-cab air temperature to fend a late-afternoon dose of the drowsies.

The possibilities are mind numbing.

There’d be fewer accidents, fewer WSIB claims, less disability.

Bottom line? Your bottom line.

And, says Joseph Coughlin, one of the lead hands on the Ford-MIT research and a director of the MIT-School of Engineering’s AgeLab, which is devoted to making life better for the aging population, we have and know how to use the technology.

"Just think," he told todaystrucking.com "about how people respond to the little avatar fitness instructors on the Wii Fit. Those games sense your balance and fitness levels and then tell you what you have to do."

"Why can’t," he asks, "a (vehicle) do the same thing?"


Illustration of experimental display of MIT project

For instance, if you’ve been driving a long time and you’re zoning out but don’t notice it, the vehicle could sense, through how tightly you’re gripping the wheel or other onboard sensors, that your eye movement is remaining fixed for too long.

Theoretically, Coughlin says, the back of your seat could automatically massage you. Or the interior lighting might change color enough to make you more alert. Even aromatherapy might be employed to alter drivers’ moods.

"And then of course there’s the entire entertainment system that could be exploited.

"We’re talking about personalizing the driving experience, on an extremely individual basis, to keep the driver as stress free as possible," he says.

But not, Coughlin quickly adds, so stress-free you nod off. "Some stress is good," he says.

Ford’s manager of active safety research Jeff Rupp, says the goal is "creating the most comfortable driving environment possible so that our driver is always relaxed, calm and able to perform at peak performance."

Adds Coughlin, "think about the truck as a spa."

This study could have huge (and rather obvious) ramifications for the trucking industry, says Coughlin, who has worked with American Federal transportation safety officials on other projects related to trucking safety.

"The long haul, short haul, and especially the delivery guys, they’re all facing unprecedented stress levels," he says.

Of course, stress-free technology that’s eventually employed in future vehicles would have to comply with the salvo of anti-distraction legislation that both the U.S. and Canada are embarking on.

The rolling lab at the heart of the study will be a fully loaded Lincoln MKS. The luxomobile (nicknamed "Miss Daisy", as in "Driving Miss Daisy") is tricked out with blind-spot-information system, adaptive cruise control, collision warning with brake support, voice-activated navigation and every other doodad under the sunroof.

Miss Daisy will be driven all around the Boston area over the next six months and onboard gear will monitor the driver’s reactions to various stress-inducing situations using biometrics such as heart rate, skin conductivity and eye movement.

Meanwhile, the scientists will be figuring out ways to use those measurements to alter the driving experience to keep the driver in peak health and alertness.

You can read a white-paper on the project here.

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. 

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