Studying the mechanics and dynamics of automobiles has been an active area of research for mechanical engineers for decades, but there are also many fascinating, and as yet unanswered, questions about the “inner workings” of the driver.

Exploring Driver Psychophysiology directly addresses these questions by recording physiological data, including brain wave, heart rate and skin conductance data, from the driver of a vehicle in real time.

The brain wave data is recorded via scalp electrodes, measuring EEG (electroencephalography), which provides information on many aspects of driver cognition, such as directed attention, learning and memory, and intensity of mental workload. Heart rate and skin conductance measures provide information on the driver’s emotional state and levels of stress.

Dr Lene Harbott attaches chest electrodes and scalp electrodes to John Morton in order to collect physiological data while he races a 1960 Porsche Abarth Carrera at the Laguna Seca raceway. 

Working together with the Revs Mechanical Engineering research team, the physiological data collected from the driver is precisely synchronized with a suite of mechanical data collected from the car itself, including throttle, clutch, brake and steering wheel information, tire and suspension data, and car velocity, heading and driving line.

Synchronizing this car data with the driver’s physiological data provides a complete and very detailed picture of what a driver is thinking and feeling during any given driving maneuver. For example, we can identify which driving maneuvers are planned in advance, and which tend to be a reflex; we can determine whether a driver is relying on a memory to successfully execute a driving sequence rather than solely processing novel sensory information; and we can ask which driving maneuvers require high levels of mental workload and which are less stressful.

Mental workload data (red) is precisely synchronized with brake (blue), throttle (green) and clutch (black) data to provide a complete picture of the driver's cognitive activity during driving sequences. 

Further, we can ask these questions by studying drivers with widely different skill and experience levels, driving a wide range of vehicles under different driving conditions: from professional racing drivers in a comparative track race, to everyday drivers during their daily commute.

The information gathered from the psychophysiology research project will elucidate many aspects of driver comfort and safety, from identifying challenging and stressful sequences where driver assistance systems would be valuable, through developing design principles for in-car interfaces, to formulating driver training technology. The over-arching goal of the research project is to help ensure that the future driver experience is both safe and fun.