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Center for Transportation Studies

Programs & Labs

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Spring 2002

HumanFIRST Program launches research with Nissan

Included with the print edition of this issue of the Sensor is a brochure describing the University of Minnesota's HumanFIRST Program, a new effort funded by the ITS Institute to apply human factors research to the design and evaluation of intelligent transportation systems for improving traffic safety and mobility.

Photo of HumanFIRST researchers

HumanFIRST researchers working on the Nissan project include Peter Easterlund, Michael Manser, program director Nic Ward, and research assistant Amit Chohan.

In addition to its other research initiatives, the program has recently been awarded a three-year project with Japanese automaker Nissan to explore the potential of intelligent driver-support systems. The systems under study communicate the demands of the environment to the driver in a multi-sensory fashion, using a number of sensors that look at the environment and the driver. The HumanFIRST Program will be evaluating various system prototypes, drawing on the program's expertise in these areas and employing its state-of-the-art driving simulator and its test tracks, according to Nic Ward, HumanFIRST director. Besides Ward, members of the HumanFIRST team include research associate Mike Manser, simulator engineers Curt Olson and Peter Easterlund, and Nissan visiting scientist Nobuyuki Kuge.

Ward explains that with current vehicle systems, drivers take in information relevant for safe vehicle control through their vision. For example, a driver can see cars traveling ahead, see their brake lights, and gauge how close they are and whether that distance is changing due to deceleration. "We can see these things, but only see them. In many cases, we cannot also hear or feel them," he says. "If we could also get this same safety-relevant information through other sensory channels we would be less likely to miss it, and that might also free up some visual attention that could be devoted to other priority tasks."

The research team will explore multi-sensory ways to give drivers information in order to help them better control their vehicles and manage distractions that might lead to crashes. The current prototype system uses haptic feedback to communicate the presence of hazards to the driver by the "feeling" imparted (such as a vibration) through the steering wheel and pedals. In this way, driver awareness will be improved through touch, Ward says. This human-centered driver support system will be grounded in theories of human perception, cognition, and vehicle control in a multi-task environment.

How and when this multi-modal information is presented to the driver depends not only on the driving conditions but also on driver state (e.g. drowsy, distracted), as well as sensor and system uncertainties. Over the next three years Nissan and the University of Minnesota will work together closely to determine how it may be possible to better support drivers in driving safely and comfortably.

The multidisciplinary research project with Nissan, which began in April, involves a consortium of universities in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Europe.

Overall research will focus on the exploration of new ways to better support drivers and design prototype systems that will primarily be evaluated by the HumanFIRST team. The universities in the research consortium will collaborate to gain an understanding of how to best communicate driving demands to the driver given that drivers may be fatigued, distracted, drowsy, or simply involved in complex driving situations such as merging onto a freeway. The overall goal is to ascertain the degree to which the new multi-modal driving ecology is an integrated extension of its natural complement, and the extent to which this ecology improves a driver's ability to manage attention and respond effectively to changes that may impair safety. At the project's conclusion, researchers plan to have developed prototype driver support systems for driving simulators and test vehicles and will have evaluated the potential benefits of these systems.