'Smart' dashboard may help diminish distracted driving

Nick DiUlio
Modern dashboard technology is a double-edged sword.

On one hand, innovations like GPS navigation, Internet connectivity and smartphone integration have provided drivers with many high-tech tools. On the other hand, these new tech toys have made it increasingly difficult for drivers to concentrate on the road. Researchers at the University of Kansas think they have a solution. It’s called the Smart Dash.
Taking on distracted driving
“What we’re trying to figure out is how dashboards can become more intuitive, more informative and less cluttered, which will ultimately provide drivers with less distractions,” says Gregory Thomas, a professor of design at KU and director of the university’s new Center for Design Research, which has been spearheading the development of the Smart Dash since late 2011.
The problem of distracted driving is serious. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an estimated 3,092 people died in distraction-related crashes in 2010. Distracted driving crashes not only can lead to injury and death, but also can lead to higher auto insurance rates.
Thomas acknowledges that Smart Dash isn’t going to solve the distracted driving problem entirely, he says it has the potential to dramatically improve drivers' focus behind the wheel.
Thomas’ “Driving Without Distraction” team comprises experts from several fields, including design, mechanical engineering and behavioral psychology. The idea is to create a dashboard that drivers can customize based on individual driving skills, road conditions, attention spans and personal tastes.
“Automakers have been in a bit of a quandary lately,” says Doug Newcomb, senior technology editor at automotive website Edmunds.com. “On one hand, they are trying to add technology to vehicles because consumers want it. But they also struggle with the fact that it adds to driver distraction. I think this research (from KU) might help solve that problem.”
Features of Smart Dash
Thomas says his KU team has come up with several ways to make dashboards more intuitive, more personalized and less distracting:

  • With Smart Dash, drivers can decide what is displayed on the dashboard and what is not. The fuel gauge and speedometer would remain visible all of the time, though. “So let’s say an RPM gauge isn’t really necessary for you. You could make it disappear altogether,” Thomas says. This type of customization will help cut the amount of “clutter” that drivers face.
  • Drivers can decide how dashboard information is displayed. Perhaps an older driver needs larger letters and numbers, or a teen wants an interesting wallpaper display behind the dashboard controls. This would all be possible with the Smart Dash system. “It maximizes readability and legibility for different types of drivers,” Thomas says. “The dash morphs into what you want it to be.”
  • Smart Dash can tell the difference between city and rural environments, nighttime and daytime driving, and even dry pavement versus wet or ice-covered roads. Thomas says instrument information could change size and shape according to these and other variables. So, for example, the speedometer might change color or size if a driver is going too fast, or the fuel gauge might get larger as the tank approaches empty.
  • Personalized dashboard settings could be saved to a flash drive, which would allow different drivers of the same vehicle to easily revert back to their preferred settings. “You could also sit in the comfort of your own home and change your dashboard settings through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth while the car is parked in the garage,” Thomas says. “That way you don’t have to do it while you’re driving.”

Will it work?
To be sure, Thomas’ team isn’t the first to try to make dashboards more technologically advanced and intuitive. In 2011, for example, Ford introduced the MyFord Touch system, which provides drivers with options like audible text messaging, voice-activated climate control and Internet connectivity.
Some consumers and auto experts, however, have criticized many of these systems. J.D. Powers & Associates, for instance, cited Ford’s touch system as contributing to the decline in the automaker’s “Initial Quality Survey” ranking, which went from fifth place in 2010 to 23rd in 2011.
“MyFord Touch was an unmitigated disaster for Ford,” Newcomb says. “And I think that’s because it went beyond what the average consumer can handle. The learning curve was too steep, and it probably made driving that much more distracting.”
Even if the team at KU can design a dashboard that is as technologically advanced as it is simple to use, distracted driving expert Despina Stavrinos says those researchers may be concentrating on the wrong aspect of the distraction problem.
“While this seems like a good first step in keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, I still have to wonder if your mind is still on the road,” says Stavrinos, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Injury Control Research Center. “Drivers' eyes may be facing forward, but the workload of multitasking is still highly demanding and could be problematic, regardless of how good the technology is.”
How will auto insurance rates be affected?
Mike Barry, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, says the Smart Dash research is “heading in the right direction” when it comes to decreasing the number of distraction-related car crashes. However, it’s going to take several years before this technology may affect auto insurance rates, he says.
“The price of an auto insurance policy includes many variables, and one of them is the make and model of your vehicle,” Barry says. “So if an insurer sees a trend over time that a particular vehicle with particular technology hasn’t been generating as many claims as anticipated, that will benefit the driver. But that’s going to be several years down the road.”

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