My passenger in the Ford Taurus I'm driving suggests we skip through Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street." It's not my favorite song either. I start to fiddle with the CD player in the instrument panel. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see that I'm running off the road into a ditch at 60 mph.
There are no screams of alarm. In fact, my passenger, Jeff Greenberg, a group leader at Ford's science labs, grins. No one is getting hurt here. We're sitting in Ford's new $10 million simulator, designed to study how people act while driving. Think of it as a big video game and you've got the idea. Ford hopes the simulator will bring scientific data to the nationwide debate over how distracting cellphones and other electronic devices are for drivers.
"How long do you think you can drive straight without moving the wheel, before the car leaves the lane?" asks Greenberg, bemusedly.
"About 4 seconds?" I guess.
"About 4 to 6," confirms Greenberg, promptly.
"Sloppy steering," I comment, lamely trying to shift the blame for the crash to a problem with the car. When in doubt, always blame the equipment.
"We're working on the steering," Greenberg says with a slight frown. The new simulator is realistic, nonetheless, particularly in the way it responds to minor steering and braking. During the virtual drive on I-94 between Kalamazoo and Chicago, the sensation of a slightly irregular road surface is compelling, the tar strips bumping a rhythm as the miles reel off. It's hypnotic, and you have to concentrate to keep the car in its lane.
Driver distraction gained national attention when a car crash critically injured supermodel Niki Taylor early this year. The accident was attributed to a friend who, while driving, reached to answer a cellphone and subsequently lost control of the car. The incident intensified the debate over cellphone use by motorists. Many states have passed or have pending legislation that would prohibit drivers from talking on handheld cellphones. Accessories that allow drivers to talk on the phone without holding it are becoming increasingly common and may eventually be mandatory.
Lots of things distract from driving -- putting on makeup, eating lunch, glancing at newspaper headlines. But operating the new generation of electronic devices that automakers are installing in cars is something different.
Cellphones are just the beginning. Navigation systems and e-mail are already available. Audio systems are becoming more complicated to operate. And loads more potential distractions are making their way into cars -- from customized information services that shower drivers with stock quotes, news items, and shopping tips, to TVs in the back seat.
The question is: When does a moment of inattention become a hazard to the driver and others on the road?
Automakers point out that they can't keep motorists from acting irresponsibly; all they can do is try to make sure the design of automobiles doesn't contribute to the distraction problem. "We can't control all the things people attempt to do while driving," says Greenberg. "But we can determine whether the equipment we install is safe to operate."
Even before Taylor's accident, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had begun taking testimony on the subject of driver distraction as a prelude to federal regulation. But despite the attention being paid to inattention, much of the debate so far has been anecdotal rather than scientific. In fact, there is surprisingly little hard data about what people are looking at while they drive. The Ford simulator, as well as another being built by NHTSA, is among the first of several new machines that are designed to compile that information.
The Taurus I'm virtually driving is very real, but the car is bolted solidly to the flat floor of a spherical pod. The roof overhead is about the size of a military early-warning radome and is made from the same material. Eight huge hydraulic jacks that support the pod some 20 feet in the air generate the sensation of motion. The hydraulics are quick acting, making short, fast, lateral moves, then tilting the pod smoothly. The occupants inside feel the force of gravity simulating acceleration, braking, and turning. To observers on the outside, the pod's gyrations make it look like some giant insect learning the chicken dance. But seated inside, with a computerized view of the road coming at you and the bobbing dome contributing the physical sensations, it feels like you are driving a real car on a real road.
We are not alone. In the next room, technicians are watching several views of the interior on a bank of monitors. One camera shows them your feet. Screwed down to the instrument panel is another tiny camera, this one taking digital images of your iris. Low-power infrared lasers also focus on your eyes. Another electronic array worn on your head completes the complex system that has a single purpose -- determining where your eyes are focused at any given moment.
Documenting exactly where your eyes are looking is a key part of the studies being conducted here. The time spent gazing ahead is compared with the time spent looking elsewhere. The machine notes that it takes about one-and-a-half seconds to glance at your speedometer, for example -- during which you have traveled about 150 feet at 60 mph.
Greenberg calls such events "glance time," and they are surprisingly consistent in at least some respects.
Most drivers are generally reluctant to take their eyes off the road for more than a few seconds, but individuals differ in their habits. Some studies, moreover, have shown that the tolerance for taking your eyes off the road diminishes with age. Young males, for example, seem to be more apt to look away. Greenberg once recorded an individual who "drove" for more than a hundred yards without looking at the road.
Many tasks -- such as punching a single button on the radio or checking the speedometer -- can be accomplished with a single glance; more complex tasks require multiple looks.