Focus on Aging: Engineering Safer Drivers

Bryan Reimer

Since the first Model T automobiles rolled off the assembly line in Detroit, most safety equipment in cars has had the goal of protecting the driver in a crash. Bryan Reimer and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, take a different approach: They focus on sensing and improving the performance of the human who drives the car.

"There are lots of laboratory experiments predicting how the brain juggles complex demands. When you get out in the real world, you discover what really plays." -- Bryan Reimer

"Today's driving population is older, managing more chronic disease, and balancing competing demands on their attention," says Reimer, a research scientist at MIT's AgeLab, an engineering lab dedicated to developing new ideas to improve the quality of life of older people and those who care for them. "Developing safety technologies for these drivers requires that we understand their behaviors and decision making much better," Reimer says.

Their so-called Aware Car project is an effort to engineer an automobile that senses the driver's capacity to be behind the wheel and helps him or her reduce impairment from fatigue, stress, and distraction to improve driving performance. The current prototype is a Lincoln MKS tricked out with cameras and sensors that can track eye movements, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, among other variables. "Now we are working on ways to use that data to motivate the driver to improve his or her performance," he says.

Focus on Aging Research

Researchers in many different disciplines are looking at how to make our aging population stay healthy for longer. Throughout the month of May, Science Careers will publish profiles of scientists studying healthy aging from the perspective of genetics, sociology and psychology, engineering, and neurology.

Reimer, 36, has a unique approach to engineering, which comes from his interest in incorporating the human element into his work. "Cars of the future are going to have a lot more technology, but just because you have technology doesn't mean that you have unlimited capacity to use and understand it," says Linda Ng Boyle, associate professor of engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle, who has collaborated with Reimer. "There is a balance between being able to design appropriately and understand the limits associated with being human. Bryan truly gets that."

Learning the human element

Reimer's path to MIT began in the undergraduate pharmacy department of the University of Rhode Island, where he planned to become a pharmacist. However, as he watched his classmates struggle with the program, he rethought his choice. Deciding that he liked to build things, he switched his major to industrial engineering.

Reimer stayed at the University of Rhode Island to get his master's degree when one of his professors, Manbir Sodhi, professor of systems and industrial engineering, offered to take him into his lab. After supporting Reimer through a degree in manufacturing engineering focused on logistics modeling for recycling, Sodhi had another proposition for his student.

"He told me that he would pay for my Ph.D., but said, 'You are going to have to teach me about something that I'm not working in,' " Reimer says. That challenge came at the right time: It was the late 1990s and the field of human factors in transportation was gaining traction. In particular, people were just beginning to consider the impact of cell phone conversations on driver distraction.

"I really got into transportation because I wanted to explore the human component -- how humans interact with technology," Reimer says. Using sensors that track eye movements to detect drivers' focus on the road, he found that a cell phone conversation increases the cognitive demands on drivers. While "drivers may appear to be focused forward, they cannot attend to things in the periphery the way they can when they aren't chatting on the phone," he says.

What's more, age plays very little role in the degree of distraction, Reimer's research found. "They may have been distracted for different reasons, but all drivers talking on the phone were distracted," Reimer says.

When Reimer finished his Ph.D. in 2003, he joined the AgeLab as a research scientist to work on developing sophisticated driving simulators that modeled driving behavior in real time. Shortly after arriving at MIT, he began developing the monitoring system for the Aware Car.

Credit: Melanie Gonick/MIT
Cameras and sensors in this Lincoln MKS track a driver's eye movements, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, among other variables. Bryan Reimer and colleagues in MIT's AgeLab are using this data to develop technology that can assist drivers when their attention fades.

Understanding the driver

Creating a robust data collection system is critical to helping aging drivers assess and improve their skills. Aging isn't a binary event; people aren't young one day and old the next. Changes in your ability to perceive your surroundings and react to them happen slowly. And, they are accelerated by changes in your health condition; for example, Reimer's work shows that a healthy 70-year-old is more capable than a 60-year-old with diabetes and high blood pressure who takes three medications to control those conditions.

"If we look at the boomer population as they age, many of the problems that are going to face the youth of today are facing the boomers now," Reimer says. "Older adults often think, 'Why should I change? I've been all right so far.' "

The Aware Car’s technologies may provide concrete reasons why. Reimer has developed "a really robust data acquisition system" for the car, he says. The challenge now is to develop a way for the car to alert the driver that he or she is driving poorly and provide motivation to improve performance. For example, the car may alert the driver when he or she is drifting out of the lane, or perhaps even sense when a driver is feeling drowsy and change the temperature in the passenger compartment to keep the driver alert.

"Our behaviors are so ingrained that it's really hard to break through the mental model we have about how things work in order to deal with new technology," Reimer says. "We have to literally retrain our brains. That means that sometimes the optimal interface for a technology isn't the best one for the user."

Working with industry

The driver state detection system Reimer developed for the Aware Car concept has provided him with many opportunities to work with industry. For example, in a collaboration with Ford, he examined whether the company's automated parking system reduced stress for drivers. (It did). He is also working with several pharmaceutical companies to study driving behaviors in adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and adults with autism.

"Working with industry really requires you to consider how research can be transitioned into products," Reimer says. "While I find my sponsors to be very supportive of the academic research they support, their primary interest is the applied learning that is transferred into product development." That emphasis also means that academic researchers must adapt their communication styles because "at different times you are required to provide high-level executive overviews and formative data-driven details," he notes. Perhaps the most valuable thing his work with industry colleagues has taught him is how "to adapt research to constraints such as feasibility of mass production, market support, and consumers' experience," Reimer says.

Real-world engineering

Reimer's work is driven by his curiosity about human cognition and decision-making. In fact, he says that if he were to go back to the beginning with his training, he would be interested in studying cognitive psychology. "I find the decision making process in real environments -- not in the laboratory -- to be fascinating," he says. "There are lots of laboratory experiments predicting how the brain juggles complex demands. When you get out in the real world, you discover what really plays."

It's a focus that is appreciated by colleagues around the world. "A lot of researchers are very technology-oriented and they end up producing solutions that no one can make use of," says collaborator Klaus Bengler, professor of ergonomics at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, who spent 10 years at BMW research labs. "This is the difference both at the AgeLab and in Bryan's work: They take into account demographic information, physiologic information, behavioral information and generate solutions very tailored to this population."

Lisa Seachrist Chiu is a science writer in Washington, D.C.

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