The Ford Motor Company recently invited Gizmag to attend its Go Further With Ford 2012 conference on technological trends, which took place last Tuesday through Thursday in Detroit. One of the presentations that we took in looked at the automaker’s MyFord Touch system, and where that technology may be heading. Among other things, the Ford engineers want the system to be able to automatically ascertain how mentally-taxed the driver is, so it can determine if it should deliver notifications to them, or just shut up and let them drive.

The existing version of Touch is built around Ford’s Windows-based SYNC communications and entertainment system. Using touchscreen or button controls, or verbal commands, users are able to access the navigation system, place phone calls, control music playback, or perform any number of other functions. For its part, the system is in turn able to notify drivers (both verbally and visually) of things such as incoming phone calls, text messages and emails.

Needless to say, some people wonder if all this instrumentation and access to information will cause drivers to become too distracted from the task at hand – driving. In at least some cases, where drivers are already stressed by what’s happening on the road around them, it certainly could do so. Hopefully, most drivers would know to lay off the Touch-usage while experiencing such stressful driving conditions. The problem, however, is that Touch doesn’t know not to bother them at such times – at least, not yet.

Touch does already have a “Do Not Disturb” feature, which drivers can enable when they don’t want to be distracted by any notifications. The driver must make a point of turning that feature on and off, however. “It’s entirely a manual function, you have to choose to do it,” said Ford Senior Technical Leader, Jeff Greenberg. “Challenges in driving are pretty episodic ... I might be negotiating an intersection and I don’t want to be disturbed, then as soon as I’m done, things calm down and it’s OK. It’s unrealistic to expect people to be turning this on and off, that actually just increases the burden.”

Instead, Greenberg and his team envision a system that uses in-vehicle sensors to assess both the conditions around the vehicle, and the driver’s reaction to those conditions. Already, he pointed out, it’s fairly simple to determine the vehicle’s speed, its rate of acceleration, and how fast it’s going into turns, along with what the driver is doing with the steering wheel, pedals, and dashboard controls. Additionally, some Ford vehicles now have multiple radar systems and forward-facing cameras that can detect the presence and proximity of other cars on the road. Traction control systems can also be used to determine how slippery the road surface is.

Biometrics systems, which are still in development, could be used to ascertain the driver’s physiological responses to all of these stimuli – what is known as their "driver workload." These systems could measure parameters such as heart rate, skin conductance (using electrical sensors in the steering wheel rim), respiration (using piezoelectric sensors in the seat belt), along with hand and face temperature (via infrared cameras).

“We want to take information about what’s going on in the cabin – what the driver is doing – information about the vehicle response, about the environment, and we want to combine all of that into a mathematical model that says ‘This is how we think the average person is going to be in this situation,’” he explained. “And then, looking even a little bit farther out, we’d like to personalize that – not just how the average person would respond, but how you would respond.”

Ford has already built many of these “Intelligent Simplification” technologies into a driving simulator, which Greenberg demonstrated for us. It may be at least a few years, however, before we see such systems making their way into commercially-available automobiles.