Cars Could Be Made Safer Through Neuroscience

Researchers at Chalmers University in Sweden think they’ve found an answer to a question that has stumped traffic researchers for seventy years. They believe that the reason drivers make sudden, jerky movements while steering could be rooted in innate human behavior.

Children and adults both exhibit such movements while using a steering wheel, and no one has been able to explain why. The new research seems to show that it has to do with how humans behave when reaching with their hands.  The ultimate goal of this research has always been improved safety systems and devices for vehicles based on drivers’ instinctive movements. Such devices would be able to predict a driver’s behaviors and respond accordingly.

British researcher Arnold Tustin was the first to look into the matter back in 1947, when he developed the first model of how a person steers toward a given target while operating a vehicle. The behavior he observed is known now as “tracking within control theory,” and involves the driver smoothly following the road with the wheel as he or she is driving. However, deviations from this were found when the model was compared to actual measured data from drivers – the random jerkiness that prevents continuous, linear control behavior.

The Chalmers researchers in Sweden began to study these deviations when they saw similarities during their research of reaching behavior. They found that the speed of hand movement when picking up an object is related to distance; the longer the distance, the faster the movement is. The result of this adjustment of speed to distance is that the movement time is the same regardless of distance.

Researcher Ola Benderius and Gustav Markkula “immediately recognized this patter from our measured steer signals,” says Benderius. “It was a bit of a ‘eureka’ moment. Was it possible that this basic human behavior also controlled how we steer a car?”

The pair found that 95 percent of steering corrections correspond to reaching theory. Over one thousand hours of driving data containing 1.3 million steer corrections were analyzed before reaching this result. The conclusion is that steering is not linear when a driver is following the road, and the wheel is turned according to the reaching pattern, resulting in the jerking movements that have been unexplained until now. From studying the behavior, the two were able to develop a mathematical model that can both explain many steering behaviors and predict them.

The researchers’ hope is that from this information, anti-skid systems can be made smarter, and safety devices can be developed to intervene when a driver misjudges while steering. Adopting a new, neuroscience-led perspective rooted in control theory could “completely change how we regard human control of vehicles, crafts and vessels,” says Benderius, adding, “I hope and believe that many researchers will utilize the findings and start to think in new ways.”

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