Research conducted by Ford Motor Company and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) New England University Transportation Center (NEUTC) shows drivers are less stressed when using selected new technological advancements in the car.

The nine-month study was part of a continuing alliance between Ford and MIT to improve driver focus, wellness and safety through the integration of vehicle technology.

"Ford's collaboration with MIT and NEUTC is an important pathway to the future of transportation," said Joe Coughlin, director of MIT's New England University Transportation Center. "This study, which yielded significant results, showed ways we can use new technology to improve well-being and performance behind the wheel."

Tracking drivers

The study monitored drivers as they performed perceived "high-stress" tasks such as parallel parking and backing out of parking spaces with restricted visibility. The results showed a reduction in both self-reported stress levels and objective physiological measures used to monitor driver stress load.

The findings were strongest in the parallel parking study, where use of Ford's Active Park Assist feature in the Lincoln MKS helped to significantly reduce stress on drivers compared to the manual operation of performing the same task.

When backing out of parking spaces with Cross-Traffic Alert, drivers were more likely to stop and yield to an approaching vehicle than when the  system was unavailable.

Reversing stress

Today's consumers are seeking every edge they can in the pursuit of healthier and happier lives, yet record levels of stress are being reported. According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, people in their late 30s to mid-50s are actually reporting the lowest state of well-being over their lifetimes.  Just as stress builds up incrementally throughout the day, taking proactive steps to decrease stress is important to counterbalance and maintain overall well-being.

"The fact is that middle-aged Americans are at the highest point of stress and unfortunately at the lowest point of well-being in their entire life span," said Coughlin. "The volume, velocity and the complexity of today's lifestyle is causing individuals to report an increase in stress and a decrease in enjoyment behind the wheel."

For the past seven years, Ford and MIT's New England University Transportation Center have been collaborating to understand the correlation between stressors and driving performance and identify technological advancements that both mitigate stress and create a more enjoyable experience.

Research results

The research objective of the study was to measure and monitor physiological changes in heart rate during and following the completion of driving challenges, including parallel parking and backing out of a concealed parking space. Using biometric results as well as self-perception evaluations, the research measured the impact of new parking technologies on stress levels.

In the study of Ford's Active Park Assist system, data were collected from 42 people equally distributed between males and females across three age groups -- drivers in their 20s, 40s and 60s. Prior to testing, each of the subjects was given an in-depth briefing and demonstration of both the technology at the focus of the study as well as related systems.

They then gained experience with the systems prior to the defined assessment period. For example, in the parallel parking study, drivers were given three practice opportunities to both manually parallel park and use Ford's Active Park Assist feature to grow accustomed to the technology and experience parking the Lincoln MKS.

Physiology of driving

Following this introduction, each of the test drivers was monitored using heart rate as an objective method of assessing driver workload and stress on the road. In addition, a subjective measure was monitored by asking subjects to rate their perceived stress level at the completion of each driving maneuver. Detailed evaluations of their experience and impressions of the technology were also collected at the end of the experiment.

"The test subjects averaged more than 12 beats per minute lower heart rate when using the Active Park Assist system compared to manually parallel parking the vehicle in what was a highly statistically significant decrease," said Bryan Reimer, associate director of research, New England University Transportation Center at MIT. "The substantial changes in the objective physiological markers of driver stress, coupled with changes in perceived stress, suggest that the driver's well-being can be increased through this technology."

Data from the initial 10-second anticipatory period prior to initiating the functional maneuvering of parking also had relevant results. During this period, there was a moderate but highly significant difference in heart rate depending on whether the driver was about to use Active Park Assist or park manually.

Manual vs. tech

During the evaluation trials when drivers were anticipating engaging in a manual parking exercise, mean heart rate was 75.9 beats per minute. During the evaluation trials when drivers were anticipating parking using Active Park Assist, heart rate was 72.5, or 3.4 beats per minute lower.

This indicates that prior to the physical work involved in maneuvering the steering wheel to manually park, the anticipation alone associated with undertaking the task was more stressful than when drivers were anticipating parking with Active Park Assist.

This difference is particularly notable in that it was observed in individuals who had only had the opportunity to develop experience and trust in this technology for a relatively limited period of time.

"While more than 76 percent of the participants indicated that the Active Park Assist system made it easier for them to parallel park, developing a better understanding of the participants' other responses can provide important insight into how further gains in technology adoption and stress reduction can be obtained," said Bruce Mehler, research scientist at New England University Transportation Center at MIT and a study collaborator.

Dev Kochhar, technical expert at Ford Research & Advanced Engineering, said the research findings are important "because they provide evidence that, in real-world situations, drivers can adjust to new technology when it is designed with the user in mind, and presented in a helpful manner."

Second test

A second experiment focused on Ford's Cross-Traffic Alert technology. Using a methodology similar to the parallel parking study, drivers were given an opportunity to experience backing out of a blinded parking spot with and without Cross-Traffic Alert.

The most notable finding was that at one point in the experiment, all drivers who received a traffic alert warning from the technology stopped and yielded to an approaching vehicle, while only 71 percent of the drivers backing out without the aid of the technology appropriately stopped.

"A meaningful take-away from this work is how objective measurement techniques, such as heart rate monitoring with a high level of sensitivity to changes in stress, can deepen our understanding of the extent to which individuals trust and are comfortable working with new technologies," said Reimer. "This represents an important step in enhancing the design of future technology, improving safety, minimizing stress and contributing to well-being."