What is safe behaviour for the driver of a car? This question has fascinated cognitive scientist Tuomo Kujala for over 15 years. New technologies have rapidly changed driving, and not necessarily always for the better, the researcher says. There is now an urgent need for research on the attentional demands of driving.

When Associate Professor Tuomo Kujala sits behind the steering wheel in his own car, he regards himself as a reliable driver. At times, his hand goes to a smartphone, from which he searches for music and sometimes writes a message.

“But being aware of the risks. I never use the smartphone in more demanding situations in traffic. If I’m typing out a message, I anticipate what is happening and turn my gaze frequently back to the road.”

According to the Road Traffic Act, the driver of a motor vehicle may not use a mobile phone when holding it in their hand while driving. The device must be in a holder. Neither should the use of any other communication devices jeopardise safe driving.

Kujala himself drives a 2007 Volkswagen Golf R32, which has been converted to use biogas. This rare and somewhat older car still has a rather limited array of information and entertainment systems, he says, smiling a bit.

“It is essentially about how the design of new technologies takes into account human attention, inattention and multitasking capacity”, says Tuomo Kujala.

As automation is added to cars, does the driver stay attentive?

In the car industry, the trend is quite different. New technology is introduced in cars in a way that makes it difficult for research and regulations to keep up with the development.

“The trend is that they would like to place nearly all functions of the driver on a big touch screen. This is also perhaps the most cost-effective way for the manufacturers. At present, there is a wide variety of user interfaces for all the functionalities, and new ones keep coming up all the time. There are but few if any common standards except for Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto.”

According to Kujala, in earlier days manufacturers sought to create and comply with standards for in-car user interfaces, but the last good practices date back to 2006.

“Those recommendations address, for example, suitable minimum font sizes on the driver’s displays, but this, too, may have been forgotten later,” Kujala says.

This forms a context for one of the problems that Kujala and his research team is investigating.

“There is not enough research, for example, on what kind of modern user interface is safe for use while driving. We need more research and development of more valid testing methods,” Kujala says.

The driver becomes an observer

Technology is changing driving significantly in another way too: driving is increasingly automated, and the driver’s role is to become an observer – adaptive cruise control regulates speed and distances, while active steering assistant takes care of steering.

Kujala explains that from the perspective of cognitive science, such large changes raise many questions. Although the driving assistance systems are often marketed with safety arguments, the various new and first unreliable technologies may make many things in driving worse.

According to him, it is essentially about how the design of new technologies takes into account human attention, inattention and multitasking capacity.

“Cars are equipped with technology that gives the driver more time and freedom to do other things. We know, however, that people are poor in observing devices if they are not themselves somehow actively controlling these all the time. In such settings, human attention tends to drift easily to other things and the systems may fail without any warning.”

“In driving, like in many other tasks, attention is crucial for performance.”

Driving research draws on, for example, the knowledge gained from aviation.

“Similar models that describe a driver’s observational requirements and time-sharing of attention could be used in the future in the research of fighter pilots or team players in sports, for instance.”

Cognitive scientists are interested in models describing the functioning of the mind, why people act the way they do.

The introduction of navigation systems started driver inattention research

The cognitive scientists of the University of Jyväskylä are searching for answers to the question of what technology should be like in order to genuinely make driving safer.

Or what is safe for the driver to do during driving.

“We have to investigate further, for example, how we can best make an automated car communicate its state and intentions to the driver and others present in traffic,” Kujala summarises.

Inattention research focusing on technology in traffic commenced in the 1980s, starting with studies on the usage of navigation devices. Research into hazardous situations caused by the use of mobile phones and other secondary activities gained momentum in the 2000s from extensive simulator and naturalistic studies.

Later, human factors researchers became interested in various user interfaces of cars as well, by means of which people can already do largely the same things as on a smartphone.

“I recently tested a car where the air conditioning was controlled by drawing by a finger to direct air streams to desired points,” says Kujala, mentioning as an example of the altered research field.

Inattention research focusing on technology in traffic commenced in the 1980s, starting with studies on the usage of navigation devices. Credit: Mostphotos

In the new Drive-In laboratory, inattention can be studied with authentic in-car infotainment systems

Cognitive scientists in the Faculty of Information Technology at JYU are working at the intersection of several sciences: Their studies combine methods and research knowledge gained from the respective fields of Computer Science, AI Research, Psychology, Philosophy, and Neuroscience.

”We are interested in models describing the functioning of the mind,  i.e., on a general level, why people act the way they do. A fundamental assumption in the modelling is that while the driver makes rational decisions, decision-making is optimal only in the light of the objectives of the task as well as the cognitive and contextual constraints.

“When sitting behind the steering wheel, we often have many, sometimes even conflicting goals for our action, and our brains seek to figure out what kind of behaviour would lead to the best end result. How do I get safely to my destination even if sending an important SMS message on the way?”

When studying attention and drivers’ actions, Kujala with his team in Jyväskylä uses different ways and means.

At Agora, they have a laboratory equipped with a driving simulator, where the driver’s attention is studied by analysing the eye movements and driving performance data or, for example, the state of alertness from EEG graphs.

A laboratory equipped with a driving simulator is located in the Faculty of Information Technology at JYU.

The team is already waiting for a research environment designed for the next stage, a Drive-In container laboratory, for which the construction permit is still pending. In this design, a car is driven into the container and the driver’s attention can be measured in a simulated driving scenario using the car’s real information and entertainment systems in connection with specific in-car tasks.

The environment will provide novel knowledge, which is only scarcely available to researchers and consumers at the moment.

“A few car importers have already announced their participation in the first studies, but there is still time to join,” Kujala says.

Anticipation and alertness are crucial for traffic safety

According to Kujala, drivers’ abilities or driving skills have not changed significantly over the years, although multitasking behind the steering wheel has increased.

Attentiveness is still a bottleneck in the driver’s cognition. Inattention is not easy to define and detect, however.

”It is highly contextual,” Kujala says. “In some situations, turning one’s eyes away from the road for a couple of seconds may still be safe, whereas in another situation even one second can be too much.”

“Based on some field studies, it has been estimated that lack of visual attention is involved in even more than 30 percent of critically hazardous situations. In rear-end collisions, the percentage is still clearly higher.”

Research has shown that another essential factor in traffic safety is the driver’s state of alertness.

This is worth keeping in mind when people tend to drive longer distances in summer and there is still daylight late in the evenings.

“If you are aware that your alertness has declined, you should think twice whether it is wise to add risks further by paying attention to secondary tasks while driving,” Kujala says. “According to research findings, tiredness decreases the ability to distribute attention effectively across different tasks.”

“I think that the most important skill in traffic is the ability to anticipate and align the understanding of one’s own limits with the demands of the current driving situation. Don’t look at your smartphone or the car’s infotainment system if you anticipate that something that calls for your attention might soon happen.”

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