12/02/2013 02:19 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2014

A New Focus on Driver Awareness

In November, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that about one out of every 10 highway fatalities in 2012 was driver-distraction affected.

Modern automobiles are safer than ever, but -- even with today's advancements in technology and engineering -- more than 30,000 lives were lost in 2012 on U.S. highways. With the NHTSA's announcement, it's clear that we now face a new generation of safety challenges.

Driver distraction is a complex issue. It can include taking your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel and/or your mind off the task of driving. But at the end of the day, all three actions are linked, and tackling one kind of distraction can potentially cause others. While current education efforts rightly focus on texting and driving, the challenge goes well beyond the rise of smartphones.

The fact is, the way we interact with our vehicles is quickly evolving and fundamentally changing. Driving today requires people to manage information about the environment inside and outside the vehicle from a range of screens -- including the windshield, rear-window, mirrors, information systems and heads-up displays. Soon, we'll likely see advanced, intelligent technologies capable of sharing more responsibility for controlling the vehicle.

With all of these systems competing for our attention, reducing driver distraction alone will never be enough. Rather, we also need to devote ourselves to developing systems that improve driver awareness.

Modern technology has made it possible to build a true relationship between the driver and an intelligent vehicle, with the two working as teammates with a common goal of safe driving. Each will have a specific role to play, but they'll also need to learn from, communicate with, adapt to and assist one another as necessary. As teammates, they'll greatly enhance each other's awareness of the driving environment.

But building this relationship will require new approaches, with research that goes well beyond what we might expect from the auto industry. It will mean bringing together experts from computer science, communications, public health and more. And, it will require sharing what is learned so that we can all build this new world together.

This is one reason why Toyota created the Collaborative Safety Research Center. Based in Ann Arbor, MI, CSRC follows a unique research model -- partnering with universities and research hospitals on projects that go beyond just improving how vehicles protect people in a collision to studying how we can help prevent crashes from happening in the first place. Since launching in 2011, CSRC has worked on 26 projects with 16 partners, and we're starting to see the results of this innovative model.

Just last week, at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Toyota announced the results of a collaboration with MIT AgeLab that examined how voice command systems impact on driver attention. The study was designed to help understand whether the use of hands-free systems actually taxes a driver's attention, taking their mind off the road ahead.

The researchers concluded that the cognitive demands were actually lower than expected, in part because drivers often compensate by slowing down, changing lanes less frequently or increasing the distance to other vehicles on the road.

But they also found that, in some voice interactions, the number of drivers taking their eyes off the road to use the hands-free systems was actually higher than expected. The problem was often more pronounced for older drivers, some of whom actually turned their bodies to face the voice command system's graphical interface.

Another research project with Stanford University tackles a different question. How do drivers actually react when we introduce automated safety technologies that can take full control of the vehicle?

Stanford and CSRC are studying the interactions between the driver and the vehicle when they hand off control to one another in critical situations. The program uses an innovative driving simulator that combines EEGs, skin sensors and eye-tracking headgear to measure a broad range of physical, physiological and emotional reactions.

Together, we're working to answer some of the most important questions about these new technologies. For instance, how does the driver responds to a cue to take control of the vehicle when that cue is an urgent message versus a more gentle suggestion? Does driving for a prolonged period in automated mode reduce a driver's situational awareness? Should the driver and vehicle communicate using voice, lights, touch or something else entirely?

We understand that neither of these projects will provide all of the answers to solve the problem of driver distraction. But CSRC is committed to openly sharing its collaborative research results. Ultimately, everyone has a stake in highway safety, regardless of the nameplate on the vehicle.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Harvard School of Public Health in an effort to call more attention to the dangers of texting while driving. Distracted driving is the cause of 350,000 crashes per year, and the series will be putting a spotlight on efforts being made to combat the crisis by the public and private sectors and the academic and nonprofit worlds. In addition to original reporting on the subject, we'll feature at least one post a day every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; for more information on the national effort, click here.

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