GM to study safety of dashboard gadgets

The big automaker teams with the University of Illinois to see how well humans can interact with in-vehicle toys like navigation systems and laptop computers.

3 min read
General Motors announced a multiyear partnership Tuesday with the University of Illinois to study the mounting controversy of dashboard electronics and driver distraction.

The Detroit-based automaker's research and development division teamed up with the university's Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the Urbana-Champaign campus. The goal is to determine how well humans can interact with in-vehicle technologies such as satellite navigation systems, dashboard entertainment systems and laptop computers.

GM will contribute more than $1.6 million over three years to the effort, which includes a "driver education" initiative. Researchers will focus on older and inexperienced drivers, studying their cognitive, perceptual and motor skills while operating electronic devices under normal driving conditions and in foul weather or on crowded streets.

"We know that technology will never replace the good judgment of a driver," said Robert C. Lange, GM executive director of structure and safety integration. "However, we hope to use the results of this research to mitigate potential in-vehicle distractions and help drivers manage other distractions more effectively."

GM, Ford Motor and other automakers have been studying driver distraction for years, but their research has assumed a sense of urgency as cell phones, navigation systems and other appliances have become ubiquitous on American roads. Automakers are keen to capitalize on the potentially lucrative niche, hoping that customers will pay hundreds of dollars for factory-installed handheld docking stations and laptop ports in their cars.

But dashboard gadgetry--also known as "telematics"--also raises the question of legal liability for the automakers: If a person crashes because they were reading a map on a dashboard monitor, can the victim or the victim's family sue the automaker for building a dangerous system?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatal Accident Reporting System, 10.3 percent of all fatal crashes in 1999 were caused by driver distractions. Distractions ranged from lighting cigarettes and eating hamburgers to applying makeup and even attempting to write memos. But the study showed an alarming increase in the number of electronics-related distractions as the number of Americans with handheld electronics devices has mushroomed.

GM engineers and executives have spearheaded an industrywide effort to abolish all text-based electronics requiring drivers to read or type commands. As part of the "SenseAble driving" program, GM advocates voice commands and audio feedback--including embedded cell phones that allow the driver to "dial" by saying the numbers out loud and "reading" e-mail by listening to a digital voice that recites incoming text.

As part of the joint effort between GM and the university, researchers will upgrade a crude driving simulator at the Beckman Institute's Integrated Systems Laboratory with state-of-the-art technology. That will allow scientists to study driver distractions in a safe but true-to-life driving environment.

The move comes after an ambitious simulation program at Ford that last year debuted a $10 million laboratory in Dearborn, Mich., to study the dangers of electronic appliances. Ford's Virtual Test Track Experiment, or Virttex, was the first automotive lab to feature a full-scale, moving-base driving simulator that tracks drivers' eye movements as they use onboard gadgets and try to maneuver curves on simulated highways. Ford's research will run through 2004.