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How would you like your car to speak to you? Experts want to know

Although it can’t carry on a conversation, your car communicates with you. Depending on how it’s equipped, this can be anything from a warning when your seat belt isn’t fastened, to chimes and lights if there’s a vehicle alongside when you’re trying to change lanes.

But those warning signals aren’t randomly selected: “It requires significant testing and development,” says Birsen Donmez, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at the University of Toronto, who is working on a safety feedback program for Toyota.

“Not everyone might react the same way to the same type of feedback, and the issue is to understand how to personalize these systems, because humans are so variable.”

While Donmez isn’t designing the actual systems, she’s researching how drivers react to the feedback they’re getting, and what types are most effective for the maximum number of drivers.

The system must be effective enough to get the driver’s attention, but can’t be so distracting that it diverts all of the driver’s focus, and he or she ends up hitting the object that initially triggered the warning.

Factors that go into feedback design include what sets off a warning, such as speeding or wandering out of the lane; when the warning goes off; if it’s visual or makes a sound, or both; how long it’s on, and what information it provides to the driver.

Researchers use a variety of methods for testing, including focus groups, questionnaires to assess the risks that drivers might take, and driving simulators. For some projects, the test subjects drive in real-world conditions.

In one analysis, Donmez worked with Transport Canada to monitor a group of drivers and their reaction to vehicle feedback when they were speeding or following too close to the vehicle in front.

Not only did this provide information on the feedback, but it also let the researchers determine which drivers reacted most strongly to it, which could allow engineers to design systems that deliver the greatest assistance.

With so many individual drivers though, the system has to be geared toward providing benefit for a maximum number of people. “We go for the average, rather than each individual driver, unless it poses a danger for some drivers,” Donmez says.

“At the worst case, you don’t see a benefit (for every driver), but you don’t see a decline in performance. You don’t want to endanger anyone with the system.”

To note

  • Warnings aren’t the only issue. Researchers also look at incentives such as fuel economy gauges, to be sure they aren’t too distracting.

  • With and without. In addition to seeing how subjects react to feedback, researchers also look at how they drive when it’s taken away afterwards, to see how effective it is.

  • Admissions. Test subjects are more likely to admit they do something, such as texting while driving, if they think other people are okay with it, but are less likely to admit anti-social behaviours such as impaired driving.

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