Daily Iowan: High Tech Aids Drivers

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

By Maggie Peters
Daily Iowan

Technology devices such as iPods and cell phones have normally been thought of as dangerous distractions for those behind the wheel. But now UI experts are looking into ways technology can be used to avoid accidents on the road.

“There are two general types of technology used in vehicles,” said John Lee, a UI professor of mechanical and industrial engineering. “The first group includes cell phones, iPods, and DVD players. The second actually makes the car attentive to what the driver is doing.”

He describes the hazards of distractions behind the wheel, as well as the benefits of new technology for drivers in his essay, “Can Technology Get Your Eyes Back on the Road?” recently published in the journal Science.

Lee’s focus on crash-preventing technology includes radar systems that can monitor the distance a vehicle is from objects in front of it, he said. This type of system would alert and prevent drivers from hitting other vehicles or objects a driver might miss if he or she isn’t paying attention.

Distractions challenge a driver’s attention capacity, even if the person’s eyes are on the road, Lee reports. The more cognitively demanding a distraction is, the more dangerous it is for the driver. Such distractions contribute to more than 40,000 motor-vehicle-related deaths per year in the United States, according to Lee’s essay.

Obtaining personal feedback on driving ability is also extremely beneficial for improvement, he said. Drivers who received both immediate feedback as to where their eyes were focused when driving — as well as feedback on their performance at the end of a drive — were more likely to drive better next time.

The feedback study, completed by Birsen Donmez, a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used cameras to monitor the eyes of drivers.

“It’s possible for us now, with eye tracking, to see what a driver is looking at in real time without being intrusive,” said Donmez, who received a doctorate at the UI. “When drivers are actually aware of where their eyes are, they begin to act more appropriately.”

In her simulator experiment, she tested drivers in three sessions, giving immediate feedback reported by the eye-tracking cameras, as well as “report card” feedback that assessed driving performance in retrospect.

“On the last day subjects were tested, their driving was improved even without hearing any feedback,” Donmez said.

Lee and Donmez believe this type of technology has the potential to be extremely helpful, especially for young people.

“People ages 16 to 23 can be very dangerous drivers,” Lee said. “When you add doing something such as text messaging on top of that, it makes them even more vulnerable.”

And Donmez said she could see the possibility of eye trackers being used as training tools for new drivers, as well as a way for older drivers to improve.

“The technologies are helpful for older drivers who can use the feedback to help them better self-regulate,” she said.