Miss Daisy's helping to test tech limits for older drivers

Miss Daisy's helping to test tech limits for older drivers

The Boston Globe
May 14, 2001

by Jeffrey Krasner, Globe Staff

Talking on a cellphone while driving can increase your risk of an accident, according to some studies. But what if your car is also flashing e-mail messages, directing you to your destination with a navigation screen, and broadcasting shopping updates from nearby malls?

And what if you're over 50, and you wear bifocals and have impaired hearing?

To find the answers, the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has enlisted the help of Miss Daisy. That's the fire engine-red Volkswagen New Beetle that is being transformed into a driving simulator to test the limits of technology for older drivers.

For Lab founder Joseph Coughlin, the challenge is twofold. The first is using advanced devices to help drivers over 50 operate the vehicle safely. ''How can we use technology in the car to compensate for the older driver whose neck is stiffer, whose night vision has deteriorated over time, whose response time is slower?'' he asks rhetorically.

At the same time, adding these devices can create their own hazards, just as careless cellphone users have learned. ''You can't overload the driver,'' says Coughlin. ''You'll have a whole range of devices beeping at you and flashing lights at you.'' Asks visiting scientist Joachim Meyer: ''What is the best way to display information so it disrupts driving minimally?''

Enter Miss Daisy, named after the movie ''Driving Miss Daisy,'' about an elderly woman and her chauffeur. The car, donated by Volkswagen of America, started life as a standard issue five-speed Beetle. Boston Volkswagen of Allston removed the engine and transmission, stripped the brake hydraulics and emptied all the fluids. Pop the hood, and there's a clear view down to the carpet.

Taking out all those oily bits made the car easier to move into the second-floor lab. After removing the fenders, the staff turned the car on its side, put it onto dollies, and raised it through the freight elevator shaft.

Now, a PC-based driving simulation program is being installed in Miss Daisy. An overhead projector will flash the driving scene onto a big screen in front of the car. Its pedals and steering wheel will be wired to control the car's apparent motion. An electric motor attached to the steering column will provide realistic feedback as the driver turns the wheel. And the car's speedometer will be hooked to the program, indicating the apparent speed down the simulated highway.

With a realistic simulator ready, researchers will then start to install the ''extras,'' which can help older drivers or provide additional information. Among the candidates:

A small screen rising from the center console ahead of the shifter, which will display maps and other navigation aids.

A small computer screen that will sprout off the dashboard. It will be used to display a variety of information, such as e-mail, traffic updates, and shopping alerts.

A ''heads-up'' display system that will project images right into the driver's field of vision. This could include vehicle information, like speed, or warning information about obstacles in the road ahead or in adjacent lanes.

In front of the driver, perhaps hanging off the roof near the sun visors, will be a scanner, aimed at the driver's face, to measure eye movements.

While it'll be a few months before Miss Daisy is ready for the virtual road, researchers are already signing up volunteers, young and old, who will get about $35 for participating in the study. Younger drivers will help provide a baseline against which to judge the reactions and preferences of older drivers.

The fundamental goal of the program, says Coughlin, is to keep older drivers safely on the road longer. ''Driving is the glue that holds all those little activities we call life together,'' he says. ''If you can't drive, you can't go window shopping for the fun of it, and you can't go to the park to see your grandchildren play. That's life.''

Jeffrey Krasner can be reached by e-mail at krasner@globe.com.

This is mirrored from the original story which This story ran on page 02 of the Boston Globe on 5/14/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.