An end to bad, cranky drivers?

Nine-month study by Ford, MIT finds tech aids not only improve driving skills, but reduce physical stress responses in drivers.

Ford Motor's Active Park Assist determines angles, then at driver's prompt steers a car into its space while driver controls the gas pedal, braking, and shifting. Ford Motor

While city drivers may see parallel parking as just another urban sport, for many people it's a "highly avoided and stress-inducing" situation that raises the heart rate.

That's according to a nine-month study of driver habits recently completed by Ford Motor, the New England University Transportation Center (NEUTC), and the Center for Transportation and Logistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Not surprisingly, results released Thursday found that parallel parking while using a park-assist system (instead of having to guess your bumper distance based on your limited view) greatly reduces the stress of parallel parking in drivers.

Experiments on drivers were conducted using a 2010 Lincoln MKS specially outfitted with tools to monitor what researchers call driver state.

Driver state is a combination of both behavior in using a car and the involuntary physical responses exhibited by a driver. It can include things like monitoring an individual's driving style with regard to lane-changing frequency, speed, braking, acceleration, and distance maintained from the next car, as well as their heart rate, blood pressure, brain wave activity, where the driver looks, pupil dilation, and skin conductance.

The experiment specifically used Ford's Active Park Assist , a system that uses sensors on the car to determine its position in relation to a space and then, at the driver's prompt, steers the car into a parallel parking space while the driver maintains control over the shifting, gas, and brake.

When parallel parking with Ford's Active Park Assist, drivers on average had heart rates with 12 fewer beats per minute compared to their heart rate when parking without using the technology.

Ford's Cross-Traffic Alert system warns drivers in reverse of oncoming traffic. Ford Motor

The experiment also found that even just thinking about having to parallel park makes drivers stressed.

The NEUTC study found drivers had a mean heart rate of 75.9 beats per minute when they anticipated parallel parking manually compared to about 72.5 beats per minute when they anticipated parking with park-assisting technology.

When it comes to backing up, drivers were also less likely to accidentally back out in front of an oncoming car in a parking lot when using a warning system.

Only 71 percent of drivers managed to yield to oncoming traffic when backing out of a space with obstructed views, but 100 percent of the drivers in the experiment were able to do it when using Ford's Cross-Traffic Alert, a radar-based blind spot monitoring system. In addition to warning when a car is close to approaching one's blind spot while in drive, Cross-Traffic Alert also detects distant oncoming traffic while in reverse in order to help drivers avoid backing out and being hit by an oncoming car.

This particular set of experiments consisted of 42 men and women ranging in age from their 20s to 60s who were instructed on how to use the assistant devices prior to testing.

The study its part of an ongoing project in conjunction with MIT's AgeLab to "understand the correlation between stressors and driving performance," with the end goal of developing automotive technology that improves driver skills while reducing stress.

While the study was sponsored by Ford and tested its products exclusively, the U.S. automaker is certainly not the only brand applying sensors and automated parking aids to its vehicles. It seems arguable that the results of the study might be similar using other brands of automated parking and blind spot technology. Automated parking technology can be found on models from Audi, Lexus, Toyota, and Volkswagen , and several more automakers offer camera systems for monitoring one's car and surroundings while parallel parking or backing up.

About the author

In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.

 

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