- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2002

NORFOLK Joe Coyne slides into the driver's seat, starts up the car and heads to town.
The empty stretch of interstate gives way to urban congestion, and Mr. Coyne hits the brakes as a pedestrian unexpectedly crosses the street in front of him.
But even if he hadn't stopped in time, the woman would have been safe. She isn't real. Neither is the town. And Mr. Coyne isn't really driving.
The psychology graduate student is demonstrating a computerized driving simulator that is helping Old Dominion University researchers examine how in-vehicle guidance systems affect the person behind the wheel.
The researchers want to know if such systems, which give audible or written directions, are too distracting or whether any distractions are offset by the benefits drivers get from having help finding their way in unfamiliar locations.
"We're looking at the performance and mental workload of drivers," said Carryl Baldwin, the assistant psychology professor leading the research, which involves measuring drivers' reaction times and brain activity as they respond to auditory and visual cues.
ODU acquired the General Electric Capital I-Sim driving simulator this summer. Through Miss Baldwin, the school plans to sell time in the simulator to local police agencies and other institutions to conduct driver training.
Three 40-inch monitors, each wired to a separate computer, display an interactive, wraparound view of the road. Inset views on the screens serve as side and rearview mirrors.
The driver sits in a padded bucket seat, complete with seat belt. A steering wheel juts out of a typical-looking dashboard.
The system can be modified to emulate about 35 types of vehicles. The simulator reacts to the driver steering the wheel and using the brake and gas pedals.
Drivers maneuver through different environments from rural areas to suburbs to busy downtown intersections and weather, light and traffic conditions. They even can feel the car sliding on icy roads, traveling over bumps or being shaken by the wind.
The driver wears a cap with sensors that detect brain-wave patterns, telling researchers how hard the brain is working as it processes information.
There are a few glitches in the simulator, such as two cars that appear to be on a collision course gliding through each other unscathed.
"We actually have some violent cars," said Mr. Coyne, 24, of Long Island, N.Y. "There's a Hyundai that for some reason just started rear-ending people."
The researchers have completed a study of the mental workloads involved in driving through different kinds of environments and heavy versus light traffic.
The nine drivers, all college students, also had to follow the road while performing secondary tasks. They had to push a button when they heard a low-pitched beep during a series of high-pitched beeps, or when they saw the screen on a laptop next to them flash red instead of the usual green.
Preliminary results show that as people "get into more challenging driving situations, they don't have any extra mental energy to respond to something else in the environment," Miss Baldwin said.
But the trade-offs could be worth it, she said. The next step is to test different ways of giving drivers navigational information and how those methods change the drivers' mental workloads.
"Is it best if they see a picture that shows their position, a map kind of display?" Miss Baldwin asked. "Is it best if they hear it?"
Navigational systems now on the market give point-by-point directions that follow a prescribed route, Miss Baldwin said. For example: Drive three blocks and turn left on Second Street.
"They're very unforgiving," Miss Baldwin said. "If you miss a turn, they can almost seem to get angry."
That style of directions also can be frustrating for people who prefer more general instructions that allow them to picture a map in their heads: "You're going north to this side of town, you're going to be in a residential area."
Such survey-style directions can confuse drivers who prefer route directions, Miss Baldwin said. Perhaps manufacturers should allow drivers to choose the style of directions they want, or modify systems to present some information in a way that makes sense for people who prefer the survey style, she said.
Other research has shown that about 60 percent of men prefer the survey style, while 60 percent of women prefer the route style, Miss Baldwin said.
"Which explains the classic little thing of why men don't like to stop and ask for directions and women do," she said.


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