KU researchers work to create safer, smarter dashboards

Dec. 19, 2011

LAWRENCE — “Keep your eyes on the road” has always been the most important rule of driving.

But nowadays, it’s awfully tempting to break that rule, thanks to the proliferation of cell phones, music players and GPS devices, which nearly all automakers have integrated into today’s vehicles to make driving more fun. Additionally, most automakers have integrated these toys using a one-size-fits-all dashboard design approach that doesn’t allow customization for different drivers or different driving conditions. The result, researchers say, is an increase in distracted driving, which can lead to dangerous accidents.

To address this issue, University of Kansas researchers are developing new Adaptive Information Displays – or “smart dashboards” – designed to minimize distractions and maximize the amount of time drivers keep their eyes on the road. The multidisciplinary “Driving Without Distraction” (DWD) team includes KU researchers in design, mechanical engineering and psychology, working under the umbrella of KU’s new Center for Design Research.

“Automakers are adding more bells and whistles to modern cars, and they’re adding them to standardized, non-customizable dashboards that don’t adjust for different drivers or conditions,” said Greg Thomas, KU professor of design and director of the CDR. “By not integrating all components into a customizable, easy-to-read, ergonomically centric console, the auto industry continues to add to the safety issues relating to distracted driving. That’s what we’re trying to address with these smart dashboards.”

Individual drivers have different skills levels and attention capacities, Thomas explained. In addition, roadway conditions change, placing different demands on drivers from moment to moment. For example, a driver’s capacity to process information is different when she’s driving on a suburban street in the morning, as compared to when she’s driving on a busy highway at dusk, as compared to when she’s transporting unruly kids to a pizza party at night.

But today’s cars dumbly assume that a driver’s attention capacity stays the same at all times and under all conditions – which is why there’s such a need for the smart dashboards being developed by the KU team.

“Our goal is to develop a new class of adaptive smart systems that can intelligently assess road and driver conditions and adjust the driver’s in-car experience to anticipate their safety needs,” said Paul Atchley, associate professor of psychology at KU and a member of the DWD team. “We want the dashboard to be smart and change according to what’s happening outside the car.”

How smart can the dashboard be? By integrating Bluetooth, Wifi, flash drives, GPS and other technologies, the smart dash could potentially tell the difference between city and rural environments, nighttime and daytime driving, and dry pavement versus ice-covered roads. The instrument information could change size and shape accordingly – and even disappear or become prominent depending on input by various sensors and other tracking devices.

“For example, we could have gas tank gauges that are displayed small when your tank is full, but get larger and brighter as you get close to empty,” Thomas said. “Or we could have speedometers that know what the speed limit is on a particular road and change colors if you’re driving too fast or too slow. Essentially, the dashboard display would adjust to environmental factors, which would make it easier and safer to read. It would maximize or minimize information depending on what the driver needs most at any given moment.”

The potential doesn’t stop there. USB flash drives are already able to store personal preferences and preset programming of seat positioning, air temperature, music and other customized settings. Using the flash drive to store and configure various dash information configurations could play a major role in the personalization of the vehicle. And as “apps” development continues, more individual customization of the dash becomes feasible.

“Imagine logging into iTunes and downloading an app that can make your drive safer and less stressful,” Thomas said. “That’s where we’re headed.”

Some automakers have made reasonable efforts to bring computers and consumer electronics to the dashboard in a safe way through big screens and voice-command systems. Ford, for example, placed a large bet on this trend in 2007 with its Sync system, which is designed as a way for drivers to do things like chat with their kids and make dinner reservations, all while keeping their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.

But it’s unclear how successful these efforts are because vehicles are becoming more and more complicated, adding to a driver’s workload. For example, the safety benefits of a voice-command system might be offset by the dozens of new features that the voice-command system is controlling.

“We need to be smart about what is allowed to co-exist in the driver’s domain,” said Bob Honea, director of the KU Transportation Research Institute, which is funding much of the DWD team’s research. “Some of the things that get added to cars as safety features might actually be making the car less safe.”

Also, some automaker’s interfaces are so complicated that they present a steep learning curve. Many of these systems have been given unfavorable reviews by organizations such as Consumer Reports. And none of them are truly “smart” in the way the KU research team envisions them to be.

“Dashboards have come a long way since they were created in the horse-and-buggy days to protect passengers from mud and slush,” Thomas said. “We’re excited that KU is developing the next generation of adaptive information displays – dashboards that make us better, more efficient, safer drivers.”

What should drivers do until these smart dashboards become the norm? The answer, Thomas said, is the same as it’s always been.

“Keep your eyes on the road,” he said, “and your hands on the wheel.”

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU’s Lawrence campus.

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Contact: Joe Monaco, KU News Service, 785-864-7100, from http://www.news.ku.edu/2011/december/19/smartdashboard.shtml