University of Minnesota Driven to Discover
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Center for Transportation Studies

‘U’ research on driving hits new gear

Teenagers, imagine driving a car that forces you to wear a seat belt, reports how fast you drove and won’t let you turn the ignition if you were drinking.

But it would be nice to have help gauging when it is safe to drive across a busy rural intersection, wouldn’t it? And how about driving to work in a car so small that two of them fit side by side in a single lane?

They’re all problems tackled by the University of Minnesota’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute, which has received a new $16 million, five-year federal grant. The new funding, which will be announced Monday, doubles the institute’s budget.

Director Max Donath, a professor of mechanical engineering, said the institute’s work isn’t to replace the driver, but to make driving safer. “We have a bus that can drive itself, but that won’t fly in the near-term,” he said. “What we want is a driver with hands on wheel and feet on the pedal, engaged. … These are back-up systems.”

The institute’s work, which draws professors from such varied disciplines as law, psychology, computer science and engineering, sometimes sounds like fantasy. But some of it already is in use.

Want a car seat that vibrates one side of your buttocks or the other to let you know that you’re straying to the right or the left of your lane? The institute has that, and it’s in use in a few snowplows here and in Alaska.

How about a skinny, three-wheel car, not much wider than a motorcycle, that can fit two abreast in a single lane? Researchers designed one prototype and are working on another that will be tested by a driver, probably later this year.

It tilts automatically on turns, is climate-controlled and has room for one person, a bag “and maybe lunch.”

“How many people are driving huge cars the size of tanks and they only have one person in them?” Donath asked. “We need to increase [road] capacity without more blacktop.”

The little car uses a motorcycle drivetrain and should get about 200 miles to the gallon.

Researchers also are working on a system that uses sensors to prevent multicar collisions by warning drivers when an unseen car ahead of them suddenly brakes. Often that results in a pileup when drivers don’t leave enough room between cars or don’t realize someone has braked until it is too late.

“If every car had a sensor and it was broadcast back to vehicles behind you, then cars three or four cars behind you would know they have to brake,” Donath said. “We want humans to do the braking. But if they don’t, we can automatically brake.”

Other projects include developing electronic systems that help drivers safely cross busy rural intersections that lack traffic lights by gauging when it is safe to move. Sensors could be adjusted for the type of vehicle — it will take a semitrailer truck much longer to cross a road from a standstill than a sports car — and even for the age and reaction time of drivers.

Safer for teens

Donath is passionate about measures that could make teens safer drivers. He said young people ages 16 to 19 make up less than 5 percent of licensed drivers but are involved in 13 percent of all fatal crashes.

“If you take a look at the issues — speeding, no seat belts, making poor judgments on how to go through a curve, rollovers on SUVs — a lot of it has to do with judgment,” he said. “We’re looking at what we can do to increase the tools available to deal with the problem.”

The project started with a law professor’s interest in drunken-driving issues. Institute researchers have suggested an ignition interlock that would prevent a car from starting (or limit speed to something like 2 miles per hour) if young drivers don’t buckle up. Alcohol-sensing devices require the driver to puff into them before cars can be turned on. Some systems make drivers blow in a set pattern to prevent impostors from trying to get the car going for a driver who’s drunk.

Donath views such measures as sensible, saying they could be used as carrots rather than sticks. Many states have graduated licenses for 16-year-olds, imposing curfews when they start driving, limiting which roads they can drive on and requiring them to drive with an adult for a certain period. Electronic systems could be used to monitor driving behavior and shorten or lengthen the probationary period for young drivers, depending on how they do.

“All the pieces exist; they just have to be put together in the right way and marketed,” Donath said. “We’d have to convince people that it would help them. We’re not trying to be Big Brother. … We feel very strongly that humans are in charge of driving.”

So does he shudder when he leaves the confines of the institute and hits roads filled with people who are jabbering on cell phones, deafened by pounding music, putting on makeup, trying to prevent their cat from jumping out a window or driving drunk?

“For the most part, driving our roads is quite safe,” Donath said. “I’m not terrified. … You can be the best driver in the world, but there are other drivers out there. Every time you come home you should thank God or fate or whatever you believe in, to be honest.”

Mary Jane Smetanka is at smetan@startribune.com.

Copyright 2005 Star Tribune. Republished here with the permission of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis-St. Paul. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written consent of the Star Tribune.