As Americans fight through the most stressful time of the year, Ford Motor Company and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are teaming up to study driver workload and identify new opportunities to use in-vehicle technologies to improve driver safety by lowering stress.

The idea is to see how the car can potentially enhance overall human wellness, become an oasis from stressful situations, and increase driver attention and safety.

Partnering with MIT's AgeLab, the project will identify specific stress-inducing driving situations, monitor a driver's reaction to the situations using biometrics, and evaluate methods to incorporate new stress-reducing features into the next generation of Ford products.

A six-month effort beginning this January will focus on human interaction with a specially equipped 2010 Lincoln MKS, a vehicle already recognized for its advanced safety features.

"We strongly believe that driving can be made safer by reducing the stress load placed on a driver," said Jeff Rupp, Ford manager, Active Safety Research. "Through the use of our existing technologies such as Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning or SYNC, our voice-activated communications system, we are proactively guiding drivers away from difficult situations."

"The goal of this program is to take this one step further by creating the most comfortable driving environment possible so that our driver is always relaxed, calm and able to perform at peak performance," added Rupp.

The current undertaking is the next step in the effort to study and, eventually, significantly improve driver wellness. Ford and MIT's AgeLab, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation's New England University Transportation Center, have been working since 2004 to develop vehicle systems that detect the state of a driver at key points in time. The project expects to use this information to adjust systems in the car in ways that reduce driver stress. One of the goals is to make driving as enjoyable as it used to be.

"Today's driver is feeling a greater level of anxiety than in the past, both from situations inside and outside the vehicle," said Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of AgeLab and the leader of the initiative. "This arises in part from the chronic stress in individuals' daily lives combined with longer commute times, increased driving demands due to traffic congestion and deteriorating infrastructure."

By monitoring biometrics such as heart rate, skin conductivity and eye movement, researchers at MIT have been working to develop a specific set of parameters for an embedded detection system that could be engineered into future Ford vehicles.

"Increasing human-vehicle connectivity through biometrics may provide the next major breakthrough in vehicle safety and lead the development of aware vehicle systems," said Bryan Reimer, an AgeLab research scientist working on the project.

Ford and MIT expect to conclude this phase of the study in July 2010. Findings of the study will be made public shortly after its conclusion.