Smart cars... from Sandia

Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) are more known for their research on nuclear weapons than for making our cars safer. Still, some SNL researchers are designing safety features for cars that can analyze human behavior. This could lead to smarter cars which would tell us that we're tired or tell our cell phone to hold an incoming call so we won't be distracted. Of course, SNL is also testing military vehicles occupied by a driver and a passenger. And guess what the researchers found: 'During a difficult driving maneuver, it might be best for the passenger to receive radio transmissions in order to not distract the driver.' Isn't obvious? Anyway, the SNL researchers think their technology -- if it is adopted by the automotive industry -- could save many lives every year.

Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) are more known for their research on nuclear weapons than for making our cars safer. Still, some SNL researchers are designing safety features for cars that can analyze human behavior. This could lead to smarter cars which would tell us that we're tired or tell our cell phone to hold an incoming call so we won't be distracted. Of course, SNL is also testing military vehicles occupied by a driver and a passenger. And guess what the researchers found: 'During a difficult driving maneuver, it might be best for the passenger to receive radio transmissions in order to not distract the driver.' Isn't obvious? Anyway, the SNL researchers think their technology -- if it is adopted by the automotive industry -- could save many lives every year.

A Sandia researcher using a cap with EEGs sensors

On the left is a photo of Sandia researcher Chris Forsythe. As you can see, he's equipped "with a cap connected to electroencephalogram (EEG) (brainwave) electrodes to gauge electrical activity of the brain." (Credit: SNL) Here is a link to a larger version of this picture.

Here are more details about how researchers collected data for this project. "We utilized data that already existed on the car's computer to collect a wide range of physical data such as brake pedal force, acceleration, steering wheel angle, and turn signaling," says Kevin Dixon, principal investigator. "And specialized sensors including a pressure sensitive chair and an ultrasonic six-degree-of freedom head tracking system measured driver posture."

And here are some more explanations. "Five drivers were fitted with caps connected to electroencephalogram (EEG) (brainwave) electrodes to gauge electrical activity of the brain as they performed driving functions. The researchers collected several hours of data in unstructured driving conditions that were imputed into Sandia software, referred to as 'classifiers,' that categorized driving behavior. These classifiers could detect certain driving situations such as approaching a slow-moving vehicle or changing lanes in preparation to pass another vehicle.

You might argue that designing a software based on the reactions of five drivers is risky to say the least. But SNL persists. In another news release about automated knowledge capture (August 8, 2007), SNL gives additional details. "The machine transactions segment of automated knowledge capture uses sensors to gather information about how a person drives. This information is put into a computer model. While a person is driving, the computer can detect when the driver is in a demanding driving situation (e.g. entering a high speed roadway or preparing to pass another vehicle). This recognition allows the car to delay non-urgent communications such as cell phone calls until the driver can better handle the extra activity."

And SNL, which has recently launched its Cognitive Science and Technology Program (August 8, 2007), is really promoting its activities. "Imagine a world where a machine creates a 'virtual you' by modeling how you think and your expertise on a subject. Or one where your car's computer appreciates your driving skills and compensates for your limitations. That's the world Sandia National Laboratories has entered full throttle through its Cognitive Science and Technology Program (CS&T)."

It looks like SNL either has hired a traditional PR team or needs money. "A revolution is at hand, says Chris Forsythe, member of the Labs' cognition research team. It's not one of just better guns and weapons for national security. Instead, it's a revolution of the mind -- of how people think and how machines can help people work better." Amazing words from a taxpayer-funded lab, isn't?

Finally, here are the conclusions from Phil Lebeau, who wrote Smart Cars: Will They Save Us From Bad Driving?(CNBC.com, August 23, 2007). And he asks some valid questions. "Will Sandia's research help save us from our stupidity? Maybe. But my gut says whatever safety features that might come out of this research will never be able to save us from ourselves. What do you think? Would a "smart car" make you a better driver? Let me know." Please note that these are Lebeau's questions, not mine. If you want to answer, please do it after reading his article.

Sources: Sandia National Laboratories news release, August 21, 2007; and various Sandia pages

You'll find related stories by following the links below.