Smart cars that can tell when you're bored to death

From Automaton correspondent Sally Adee:

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Sandia researchers Chris Forsythe and a companion, fitted with EEG caps, test drive a "smart vehicle" that can read their brain activity. Photo: Sandia

If driving next to a semi truck makes you nervous, you're not alone.

Reports are all over the news about how many incentives truck drivers get to push through sleep-deprivation and other impediments. They drive long, monotonous routes with little stimulation, and the results are sometimes fatal.

And it's not always because the driver is distractedâ''researchers at Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, N.M., are looking into what happens to your driving when you're not distracted enough.

Sandia is designing "smart cars" that will alert you when you're approaching that dangerous "twilight zone" between consciousness and sleepiness. They call it the "underload" conditionâ''you're bored, distracted, drowsy, or daydreaming because there's nothing to engage your mind.

The military application to this is convoy driving, but obviously the civilian counterpart is long-haul trucking. The original project was funded by DARPA about five years ago, but now it's been taken over by the Marines. The military often doesn't use brake lights, principal investigator Kevin Dixon told me.

"So if you're a 19-year-old lance corporal driving a 25-ton truck, you're not paying attention, and you don't notice that the car in front of you has slowed down, you're going to do a lot of damage with that vehicle."

But how to detect crushing boredom?

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Sandia researchers conducted experiments at Camp Pendleton with Marine Corps personnel driving a modified military vehicle. Photo: Sandia

Here's how Sandia is simulating tedious driving conditions. A convoy of three vehiclesâ''one SUV and two semisâ''drives a 40-kilometer closed course in Munsingen, in Southern Germany. At the mediocre speed of 40 km per hour, the loop takes an hour to complete, and is not particularly stimulating. No traffic is on the road except for the three vehicles.

"There won't be much to look at," Dixon told me. "It's going to be very boring."

The researchers are not focusing on sleep-deprived drivers. In the experiment, subjects will be well-rested. But they'll be bored to death. "We're interested in the more subtle condition," says Dixon, "which is that the driver is not paying attention." With the exception of the leader, everyone will be staring at the semi truck in front of them. For eight hours.

The experiments began a few weeks ago in southern Germany. Sandia researchers will be gathering data over the next seven weeks. In the first phase of experiments, the team will try to tune the car to recognize signs of the "underload" mental condition.

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Sandia researcher Chris Forsythe is fitted with a cap connected to electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes to gauge electrical activity of the brain. Photo: Sandia

All the drivers wear an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap to monitor the state of their brains. Detecting the underload condition is a trivial task for an EEG, but Dixon and John Wagner, another principal investigator, are trying to see if their "smart car" can recognize it.

Eventually they want to look at strategies for keeping people alert. Engaging in conversation, for instance, has proven to keep people aware for about an hour. So maybe using your cellphone while driving isnâ''t all bad.

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