Albuquerque's Sandia National Laboratories Researchers Design 'Smart' Cars

Sandia Labs Researchers Design 'Smart' Cars
Sandia Labs Researchers Design 'Smart' Cars
Caps on test drivers gauge human responses to driving distractions.

Imagine a car that alerts you when you are getting sleepy or spares you a dangerous distraction, directing your cell phone to hold a call.

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories think it’s possible. The lab’s augmented cognition team is working on ways to make vehicles smarter for potential commercial and military applications.

Part of the research uses sensors in a cap on test drivers to analyze human responses and measure brain waves, heart rate and other physiological data. Another mines information that already exists, thanks to the computers now standard on new automobiles.

Information about gas pedal pressure, stereo volume, air bag sensors and other so-called “control surfaces” already is out there, says Kevin Dixon, the project’s principal investigator.

“Trying to make sense of it is the tricky stuff,” he says. The team has looked at “overload” conditions, times when the circumstances are stressful and it would be “unwise to give the driver new tasks or information,” Dixon says.

Now, researchers are testing what they call “underload” conditions, when drivers may be bored, drowsy or distracted.

In one recent test at Camp Pendleton in California, software that classified driving conditions and caps that measured brain activity determined who in a modified military vehicle should handle a radio transmission, the driver or the passenger.

Along with the U.S. military, a major automotive maker also is a research partner, although Dixon says it’s too soon to say who.

It is also too early to tell what viable commercial applications may emerge, but Dixon already has some real-world advice for drivers. Dialing and texting on a cell phone are especially foolish, creating risks similar to drunk driving. Listening to music doesn’t keep a driver all that engaged. The best way to stay alert? Good, old-fashioned conversation.

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