Researchers focus on driver distraction in automated vehicles

Miniature robots
Research out of the faculties of engineering and human kinetics aims to better understand the potential for driver distraction in autonomous vehicles. Leading the project are research assistant Prarthana Pillai, engineering professor Bala Balasingam, kinesiology professor Francesco Biondi, and research assistant Noor Jajo.

Researchers focus on driver distraction in automated vehicles

With cars doing a lot of the thinking for us these days, a pair of UWindsor researchers have launched a $319,000 study to assess how drivers use automation when behind the wheel.

Kinesiology professor Francesco Biondi and engineering professor Balakumar Balasingam are conducting a real-world study of advanced driver assistance systems. They’ve recruited a small army of research subjects to drive their lab’s recently purchased Tesla Model 3 on Hwy. 401 from Windsor to Chatham and back. The researchers will compare driver behaviour when the vehicle is in the manual driving mode and when it is in Tesla’s partially automated “autopilot” mode.

“This is one of the first projects of this kind in Canada,” said Dr. Biondi. “We need to study how drivers use semi-automatic driving systems and understand the distraction potential of using these technologies.”

Biondi and Dr. Balasingam have been awarded both federal and provincial grants to conduct their three-year study. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada has awarded them more than $87,000 to add to $121,000 in cash and in-kind contributions from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. Additional in-kind contributions of $26,000 are coming from U.S.-based technology firm Dreyev, which makes devices to monitor drivers for distraction and drowsiness.

The Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Human Kinetics and other research labs at the University are supporting the project with additional cash and in-kind contributions.

“We are grateful for the incredible support we have received for this project,” said Balasingam. “This project has the potential to improve public safety, and the students who are working on it with us are getting the training to be the next generation of experts in this emerging field.”

Balasingam and Biondi run the Human Systems Lab, specializing in the study of how humans interact with machines and automation.

The lab’s Tesla is outfitted with a dashboard-mounted eye tracker that monitors pupil dilation, blink rates, and gaze to assess the driver’s alertness. Drivers for this study will wear other devices to monitor other physiological metrics such as heart rate.

“We are using these measures to study mental distraction,” Biondi explained. “The goal is to study the distraction potential of autonomous vehicles.”

The study’s findings will be shared so manufacturers can make improvements to driver monitoring systems. The researchers will also make recommendations to the transportation ministry with the goal of improving driver training.

—Sarah Sacheli