A new joint research project between Ford Motor Co. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) seeks to use in-vehicle technologies to improve driver safety, reduce driver workload, and lower overall driver stress.

MIT researchers, through the institute’s “AgeLab” facility, are focusing on how the car can potentially enhance overall human wellness by becoming what they term an oasis from stressful situations, which by extension should result in increased driver attention for improved highway safety.

“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,” explained Jeff Rupp, Ford’s manager of active safety research.

“We strongly believe that driving can be made safer by reducing the stress load placed on a driver,” he said. “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 trying to guide drivers away from difficult situations.”

This current research effort between Ford and MIT is the next step in an ongoing effort to study and, eventually, significantly improve driver wellness, added Rupp. Since 2004, Ford and MIT's AgeLab - in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation's New England University Transportation Center -- have been working to develop vehicle systems that detect the state of a driver at key points in time.

“By identifying specific situations and the physiological effect they have on the driver, we are seeking solutions that can bring the driver from a heightened stress level back to an optimal operational state,” noted Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of MIT's AgeLab. “That thereby makes their commute safer and more comfortable, renewing the positive experience of driving and riding in an automobile.”

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, one of MIT’s AgeLab research scientists working on this project.