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  High-Tech Cars Could Bring Overload

By Duncan Mansfield
Associated Press Writer
Sunday, Jan. 21, 2001; 3:46 p.m. EST

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. –– It's a sunny day and you're taking a virtual drive down a two-lane road inside the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

All of a sudden, a truck pulls out from the shoulder and the forward collision-warning system starts beeping. You brake, then an electronic voice announces, "Incoming Internet news."

While trying to scan headlines on a dash-mounted computer screen, the cell phone rings. Then more Internet news arrives.

Another voice poses a question: "If your car gets 12 miles to the gallon, how many gallons will you need to travel 96 miles?" Still pondering the math, you hear the onboard navigation system's electronic voice command, "Turn left ahead." An arrow appears on the computer screen.

You miss the turn.

So do one out of six drivers who take the test. Some don't answer the phone. Others ignore the Internet or can't remember what they read. Under the circumstances, even the third-grade math problem becomes a brain teaser.

Those are the early results from the federal government's first attempt to measure how drivers deal with a potential information overload from an array of high-tech features now being installed in automobiles.

"All the stuff in there is based on actual systems," ORNL senior scientist Dr. Philip Spelt said of the gadgets he installed in a simulator to test the reactions of 36 drivers.

While still crunching numbers, Spelt said the overall outcome already is obvious: "People who got bombarded with three or four devices all at once had more trouble dealing with the whole situation than people where we spread them out."

The study, expected to be formally released late this summer, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Intelligent Vehicle Initiative, which promotes in-vehicle devices that can warn drivers of dangerous situations, recommend actions or even assume partial control to avoid accidents.

Spelt recognizes that some might question how often all of these systems would go off in such rapid succession. "And the answer is: All it takes is once and if somebody is dead, they don't have to worry about it anymore," he said.

Automakers, already equipping their high-end cars with onboard navigation systems, cell phones and the like, are launching their own investigations.

General Motors Corp last fall announced a three-year, $10 million study of driver interaction with cell phones and other gadgets. This month Ford Motor Co. announced its own $10 million effort and said it had just completed its own simulator.

Concern over cell phone use in cars is growing. Eleven states now ask patrol officers to determine if phones were factors in traffic accidents. Since 1995, 37 states have considered curbs on cell phones in moving vehicles. So far only minor restrictions have been adopted by California, Florida and Massachusetts.

"It has really been a struggle for states to keep pace with the rate of new technology going into the car," said Matt Sundeen, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some researchers have seen the issue coming, but studies until now have focused on the impact of the gadgets individually, said Dr. Tom Granda, who oversees Spelt's study from DOT's Office of Safety Research and Development in Washington.

"What we asked Phil Spelt to do ... was to look at what is the distraction value of a combination of these things. What are the human performance issues involving multiple systems in a vehicle?"

The simulator Spelt created includes four systems already available or soon to be available to consumers: a cell phone, a forward collision-warning system, a navigation system and an Internet-equipped computer screen.

He threw in occasional math questions to measure the drivers' "cognitive reserve" to determine "how much of their mental capacity is devoted to dealing with these devices and driving the car, and how much do they have left over."

He also asked them to recall phone numbers, to stay within a speed limit and to stay on the road.

Spelt tested 18 men and 18 women, ages 20s to 50s. Each drove the simulator about 45 minutes, covering about 21 virtual miles. Most did well, with little difference between men and women, he said. Only two or three crashed.

"What you learn very quickly is that people learn to cope, especially when it involves their lives," he said. "But just because 90 percent of the population can cope doesn't mean it is the right way to do it."

Drivers did better when Spelt managed the data and warning systems so that they could finish one task before dealing with another. In the future, he said, that should be the job of an onboard computer – to put a cell phone caller on hold until the driver has turned a corner, for instance.

"The issue is how do you make this stuff work so that it helps and makes driving better and safer – not worse," he said.

Granda said the point of Spelt's study is to help define the problem – it's up to the automakers and their vendors to find solutions.

"Our job is to say, 'We've done these kinds of experiments and we see these issues. Here is something you might want to be concerned about.'"


On the Net:

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U.S. Department of Transportation:

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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