Tag Archives: Driving

Rats trained to drive makeshift cars seem to find it relaxing

Unlike most of us, rats seem to find driving relaxing.

The impromptu vehicle.
Image credits University of Richmond.

A team of U.S. scientists reports training a group of rats to drive tiny vehicles around in exchange for treats (Froot Loops cereal). The team found hormonal cues suggesting that the animals found driving around to be relaxing, maybe even fun and enjoyable.

The findings help showcase how even simpler brains can handle sophisticated behavior and may help inspire new treatment options for certain mental illnesses.

Rat racers

The team wanted to explore the process of neuroplasticity — the property of the brain to change in response to experience — and was particularly interested in understanding how rats housed in more natural settings perform against lab rats.

Led by senior author Kelly Lambert (University of Richmond), the team took a robot car kit, added a clear plastic food container as the driver’s compartment, and fixed an aluminum plate under that. To complete the car, a copper wire was threaded horizontally across the cab to form a left, center, and right bar.

Image credits: University of Richmond.

When a rat moved onto the aluminum floor and touched one of the wires, it would close the circuit and drive the car in the selected direction. With repetition, they learned how to drive forward and steer in more complex patterns. Seventeen rats were trained over several months to drive around an arena 150 centimeters by 60 centimeters.

All in all, the team reports that rats kept in more natural (‘enriched’) environments performed better than their lab-kept counterparts. However, Lambert herself says it “it was actually quite shocking to me that they were so much better”. In order to get a better idea of what the rats were experiencing, the team collected feces samples after the trials and tested them for corticosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone content (hormones that cause or counter stress).

All of the rats in the trial had higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone, indicating a more relaxed state. The team says this is likely the same satisfaction we feel when we master a skill or task, known as “self-efficacy” or “agency” in humans. Furthermore, the rats that did drive showed even higher levels of dehydroepiandrosterone than those who were just passengers in a human-controlled vehicle.

While definitely cute, the study does help us better understand how rats, who are a key animal model, handle tasks and how their brains change following them. Better understanding their brains will help us better understand our own, Lambert says, and could point the way towards better treatments for mental health conditions.

“There’s no cure for schizophrenia or depression,” she said. “And we need to catch up, and I think we need to look at different animal models and different types of tasks and really respect that behavior can change our neurochemistry.”

Credit: Pixabay.

Fleets of driverless cars could smoothen traffic by at least 35%

Driverless cars that are networked and in constant communication on the road could improve the flow of traffic by at least 35%.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

The findings were reported by researchers at the University of Cambridge who programmed miniature robotic cars to drive on a multi-lane track where various traffic obstructions occurred. Each tiny robotic car was fitted with motion capture sensors and a Raspberry Pi which enabled them to communicate via WiFi.

Researchers adapted a lane-changing algorithm originally designed for autonomous cars to work with a fleet of cars. A driverless car typically changes lanes based on whether it is safe to do so and whether the procedure helps the vehicle move through traffic faster. The adapted algorithm adds a new layer of complexity and efficiency, allowing the cars to be more neatly packed when changing lanes. A fleet of cars also makes for safer roads due to constraints that prevent crashes at various speeds. The Cambridge researchers also included a second algorithm that detects cars moving in front of a vehicle and sends instructions that make space on the lane.

The authors tested to see how the fleet reacted in ‘egocentric’ and ‘cooperative’ driving modes when faced with an unmoving car. They also tested how the fleet reacted when a single car was controlled by an unpredictable human via a joystick. Both “normal” and “aggressive” driving behaviors were tested on the lanes.

In the “egocentric” mode, any cars behind a stopped car would also stop or slow down, waiting for a gap in traffic. Sounds familiar? That’s what happens on nearly every road on the planet. And naturally, in this situation, a queue quickly formed behind the stopped cars, halting overall traffic.

However, in cooperative mode — when the cars communicate with one another and respond accordingly to minimize traffic time for all parties involved — as soon as a vehicle stopped on the inner lane, those in the outer lane in the immediate proximity of the stopped car slowed down. This gave cars in the inner lane enough space to maneuver around the stopped car without having to stop or slow down significantly.

When a human driver controlled one of the robotic cars aggressively, the autonomous cars responded by giving way to the aggressive driver, improving safety.

In the normal mode, cooperative driving improved traffic flow by 35% over egocentric driving, while for aggressive driving, the improvement was 45%.

“Autonomous cars could fix a lot of different problems associated with driving in cities, but there needs to be a way for them to work together,” said co-author Michael He, an undergraduate student who designed the algorithms for the experiment.

“If different automotive manufacturers are all developing their own autonomous cars with their own software, those cars all need to communicate with each other effectively,” said co-author Nicholas Hyldmar, an undergraduate student who designed much of the hardware for the experiment.

Studies that assess the operation of numerous autonomous vehicles are typically simulated digitally or use just a few scale models — both inadequate approaches for a fleet of self-driving cars. The new study, on the other hand, uses an inexpensive and relatively realistic approach, offering one of the first evidence of traffic improvements in road-like conditions for self-driving fleets.

The findings were presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Montréal. In the future, similar studies will help researchers develop technology that allows cars to communicate with each other to improve traffic and safety.

“Our design allows for a wide range of practical, low-cost experiments to be carried out on autonomous cars,” said Dr. Amanda Prorok from Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology. “For autonomous cars to be safely used on real roads, we need to know how they will interact with each other to improve safety and traffic flow.”

Next, the researchers plan to use the fleet to test multi-car systems in more complex scenarios including roads with more lanes, intersections and a wider range of vehicle types.

Almost 40% of teen drivers text while driving

A new study reports that teen drivers age 14 years and older had texted while driving at least once in the month prior to the survey,

If there’s one thing you shouldn’t do while driving, it’s texting. No matter how good of a driver you think you are, no matter how well you think you have things under control, driving and texting is extremely dangerous. A recent study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has found that text messaging increases crash risk 23 times compared to drivers that are not distracted. Overall, no fewer than 11% of people aged 18 to 20 who were involved in an automobile accident and survived admitted to writing or receiving a text at the time of the accident. If that still doesn’t scare you — in the US alone, 1.6 million accidents every year involve a smartphone. No matter how you look at it, driving and texting don’t go well together.

Yet here we are.

A new study published in the journal Journal of Adolescent Health found that nearly 2 in 5 American teen drivers age 14 years and older had texted while driving at least once in the month prior to the survey — despite the fact that 34 of 35 states in the study ban text messaging for drivers 21 years and younger.

“The increase in texting while driving at the age when teens can legally begin unsupervised driving was not surprising,” said Motao Zhu, MD, MS, PhD, the study’s lead author and Principal Investigator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Graduated driver licensing laws could have an impact on texting while driving behavior: the earlier teens start driving, the earlier they start texting while driving.”

Results were not uniform, however, and the study highlights important differences between states. For instance, the lowest prevalence of texting and driving was 26% in Maryland, while the highest was 64% in South Dakota. Researchers also noted that more teens texted in states with a lower minimum learner’s permit age and in states where a larger percentage of students drove. White teens texted more than all other races/ethnicities.

There were five states where more than 50% of teen drivers reported they’ve texted while driving — and all had a learner’s permit and were aged 15 or younger.

“The increase in texting while driving at the age when teens can legally begin unsupervised driving was not surprising,” said Motao Zhu, MD, MS, PhD, the study’s lead author and Principal Investigator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Graduated driver licensing laws could have an impact on texting while driving behavior: the earlier teens start driving, the earlier they start texting while driving.”

The team also found an (expected) correlation between generally risky behavior and driving and texting. For instance, teens who regularly wore their seatbelt were 21% less likely to drive and text compared to those who didn’t. This suggests that being with an adult in the car can improve driving behavior, something which has been proven in the past.

“Risky driving behavior is known to be much less common with an adult in the car,” said Ruth Shults, MPH, PhD, formerly, senior epidemiologist with the CDC’s Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention. “The association between age and texting while driving highlights the need for parents to pay attention to their child’s texting while driving throughout the teen years – not just when their children are learning to drive.”

However, if anything, the study likely underestimates the prevalence of using a smartphone while driving. It specifically asked about “texting and emailing while driving,” but that doesn’t cover the wide range of uses smartphones are used for (which includes calling someone or answering a call, browsing, accessing social media, etc). The researchers also concede two shortcomings of their study: for instance, some teens may not consider writing to someone on social media “texting,” and some may not consider it “driving and texting” if the car is stopped at a red light, for instance. All this would suggest that results are underreported, and potentially more than half of US teens are using their phones while driving.

Considering the sheer number of dangerous driving accidents, this is a concerning issue. Researchers suggest that in the case of teens, parents should first be good role models. If you are a parent sitting by your driving teen, don’t use your phone — even if you are just a passenger. This could make them more prone to using their phones themselves when they’re driving. Putting the phone on silent, or on driving mode, or using an app that disables phone calls and texts while driving could help develop some healthy habits. Lastly, parents should clearly communicate to their kids that texting is simply not allowed when you drive — it’s irresponsible and quite often, illegal.

Driver sleeping.

Your car’s vibrations are making you a lousier driver — by lulling you to sleep

Just 15 minutes in a car makes us sleepier, affecting our ability to drive. After 30 minutes, this effect has a “significant impact on your ability to stay concentrated and alert,” researchers warn.

Driver sleeping.

Image via Pexels.

According to a new paper published by researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, cars themselves may be a significant threat against our ability to drive safely — some 20% of fatal car accidents today involve driver fatigue, they explain, and, according to their research, the vibrations we experience in cars makes us sleepier, posing a major risk for motorists everywhere.

Snooze cruise

“We know 1 in 5 Australians have fallen asleep at the wheel and we know that drowsy driving is a significant issue for road safety,” said Professor Stephen Robinson, paper co-author. “When you’re tired, it doesn’t take much to start nodding off and we’ve found that the gentle vibrations made by car seats as you drive can lull your brain and body.

The team worked with 15 volunteers who were placed in a virtual driving simulator. The test pitted each participant against a monotonous, two-lane highway. It wasn’t the actual driving experience that was central to this experiment, however — what the team wanted to see was what effect car vibrations have on the volunteers’ alertness levels.

The simulator was installed on a platform that could vibrate on different frequencies. Each volunteer was tested twice, using the same 60-minute driving scenario, once with vibrations at low frequencies (4-7 Hz, the same range you’d experience in a car) and once with no vibrations (as a control test).

To gauge participants’ alertness, the team monitored their heartbeat. The researchers explain that tiredness induced by vibration makes it harder, both psychologically and physiologically, for people to perform mental tasks. In order to compensate, the body’s sympathetic nervous system alters the rate with which our hearts beat. So, by looking at each volunteer’s heart rate variability (HRV), researchers were able to gain an objective measure of how drowsy they were feeling as the test progressed.

Driving simulator.

The simulator rig used in the study.
Image credits RMIT University.

During the vibrating test, volunteers started showing signs of drowsiness roughly 15 minutes in. By the 30 minute mark, they showed significant drowsiness and required substantial effort to maintain alertness and cognitive performance. The effect was progressively stronger as the test drew on, peaking at 60 minutes.

Co-author Mohammad Fard, an Associate Professor at RMIT, said that the results warrant further research into the effect of these vibrations on people. One of the first areas that should be investigated is whether their effect is consistent across different demographics, he adds — as the current experiment used a relatively tiny sample size.

“We want to study a larger cohort, particularly to investigate how age may affect someone’s vulnerability to vibration-induced drowsiness as well as the impact of health problems such as sleep apnea,” he said. “Our research also suggests that vibrations at some frequencies may have the opposite effect and help keep people awake.

“So we also want to examine a wider range of frequencies, to inform car designs that could potentially harness those ‘good vibrations’.”

“To improve road safety, we hope that future car seat designs can build in features that disrupt this lulling effect and fight vibration-induced sleepiness,” added Robinson.

The paper “The Effects of Physical Vibration on Heart Rate Variability as a Measure of Drowsiness,” has been published in the journal Ergonomics.

Don't drink and drive.

Australian Committee thinks it should be OK for drunk people to use autonomous cars

Soon, you could be able to drink till you drop and still drive in Australia — as long as your car does the driving.

Don't drink and drive.

Image credits Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bryan Reckard / U.S. Navy.

It seems certain that autonomous vehicles are making their way into our lives. With that in mind, we have to tailor existing legislation to their use so that we may get the full benefits out of them. At least, that’s what The Australian National Transport Commission (NTC) plans to do. And they’re starting with DUI laws.

In a report published earlier this month, the NTC proposes changing current legislature on DUI. They argue that requiring for occupants of self-driving cars to be sober only negates part of the benefits of such technology.

“One potential barrier to receiving the full benefits of automated vehicles would be to require occupants of automated vehicles, who are not driving, to comply with drink-driving laws,” the report reads.

“This would create a barrier to using a vehicle to safely drive home after drinking.”

Their solution is to amend current rules and regulations with an exemption for autonomously driving vehicles. In essence, this would mean that no matter how monumentally shattered you are, as long as your car is driving itself, it’s not DUI. The Commission, however, admits this exemption should be used only in cases where the driver’s vehicle is fully automated.

“A risk of providing exemptions is that an occupant may subsequently choose to take over driving the vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” the report read.

“If this occurred, they would become the driver of the vehicle and drink and drug driving offences would apply.”

While self-driving cars are poised to hit the roads, they won’t simply take over — at first, they will share the tarmac with human-operated cars. As such, there will be situations when a driver has to take control of the autonomous vehicle to avoid risk or navigate dangerous situations. In such a case, the full extent of DUI laws would still apply, the report notes. Even after full automation, when cars would be perfectly capable of running any trip entirely unsupervised, if a driver were to take manual control of the vehicle, DUI laws would still apply.

So the NTC also recommends that the exemptions be made as clear-cut as possible, so people may get maximum use out of their vehicles without getting into trouble.

“The occupants will always be passengers,” their report concludes. “The situation is analogous to a person instructing a taxi driver where to go. Any exemptions should not apply to the fallback-ready user of a vehicle with conditional automation. A fallback-ready user is required to be receptive to requests to intervene or system failures and must take over the dynamic driving task if the ADS cannot perform it.”

Gas cannister.

Aggressive driving burns up to 40% more fuel and can waste one dollar per gallon

Researchers from the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory say you should drive more sensibly — if you like saving money, that is. They’ve recently published a paper analyzing the impact patterns of aggressive driving, such as speeding and forceful breaking, have on fuel economy.

Gas cannister.

Image via Pixabay.

Aggressive driving doesn’t pay — unless you’re a gas pump. Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers report that aggressive driving can slash fuel efficiency by between 10 to 40% in stop and go traffic, or between 15 to 30% at highway speeds in light-duty vehicles. All in all, it could end up costing you about $0.25 to $1 per gallon in wasted gas.

A burning question

The team started by analyzing previous studies to develop a new energy model that would be used for the paper. It was applied to two similar mid-sized sedans, one being a hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) and the other a conventional gasoline vehicle. Both were run through driving experiments at the lab’s National Transportation Research Center, to see what difference in fuel consumption an aggressive driving style would cause. A point of particular interest for the team was to evaluate an HEV’s limitations when recapturing energy to replenish the battery during different levels of hard braking.

“The new vehicle energy model we created focused on the limitations of regenerative braking along with varying levels of driving-style aggressiveness to show that this could account for greater fuel economy variation in an HEV compared to a similar conventional vehicle,” said ORNL’s John Thomas, lead author of the paper.

“Our findings added credence to the idea that an aggressive driving style does affect fuel economy probably more than people think.”

In the end, the team’s result confirmed popular wisdom, often self-reported by drivers — aggressive driving does impact fuel economy. They also showed that HEVs are more sensitive to driving style than conventional gasoline vehicles, although HEVs almost always achieve much better fuel economy. All in all, driving aggressively could take up to one dollar from your pocket per gallon of gas burned.

So if you like money (of course you do), driving more sensibly could be just the thing to put save up. Plus, you and yours will be safer on the road and you’ll also go to sleep with a smile knowing you helped save the penguins. Win-win-WIN!

You can see the team’s full dataset on the government site fueleconomy.gov, a platform maintained by the ORNL for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy with data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency. The project aims to help consumers make informed fuel economy choices, along with other simple fuel-saving measures such as obeying posted speed limits, avoiding excessive idling or carrying too much weight, and using cruise control.

The paper “Fuel Consumption Sensitivity of Conventional and Hybrid Electric Light-Duty Gasoline Vehicles to Driving Style” has been published in the journal SAE International Journal of Fuels and Lubricants.

The first self-driving taxis are here — and by “here” I mean Singapore

This Thursday, Singapore will become the first city in the world to use self-driving taxis.

The first ever autonomous taxis will be available in Singapore. Image credits nuTonomy.

The first ever autonomous taxis will be available in Singapore.
Image credits nuTonomy.

With huge players such as Google or Volvo toying around with self-driving cars on public roads, most of us probably expected that the future fully automated vehicles we’d zip around in would be developed by one such huge company. But, for a handful of Singapore residents, the future is now — and it’s brought by the small, autonomous vehicle software startup nuTonomy. The company will become the first to ever offer the public a chance to ride in autonomous vehicles, beating ride-hailing service Uber — which plans to offer a similar service in Pittsburgh — by a few weeks.

Their fleet will start out small, six cars right now, but will double by the end of the year. Their end goal is to have Singapore’s taxi system fully automated by 2018, NuTonomy officials said. This will drastically reduce the numbers of cars clogging Singapore’s congested roads. But there’s nothing to stop them from expanding the model to other cities later, they added.

Right now, however, the taxis will only operate in a 2.5-square-mile office and residential district known as “one-north,” with specific pick-up and drop-off locations. The users will have to receive an invitation from nuTonomy to use the service, and the company says dozens have signed up for the launch, with several thousands more expected to join within the next few months.

NuTonomy vehicles — modified Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric models — will be fitted with six sets of Lidar to help it navigate its surroundings, including one that spins on the roof for a full 360-degree field of detection. Lidar is a system very similar to radar, only it uses laser beams instead of radio waves. Two cameras installed on the dashboard will scan for obstacles and detect changes in traffic lights. And, if all these fail, there’s a human driver in the front seat ready to take the wheel in an emergency, and a researcher in the back monitoring the car’s computers.


The testing time frame is open-ended, said nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma. Users will eventually start paying for the service, as more pick-up and drop-off points are added. He also said that company plans to test similar services in other Asian, European, and U.S. cities, but didn’t give any dates or places.

“I don’t expect there to be a time where we say, ‘We’ve learned enough,'” Iagnemma told the Associated Press.

Doug Parker, nuTonomy’s chief operating officer, says that their autonomous taxis could reduce the number of cars on Singapore’s roads by two-thirds, from 900,000 to some 300,000 cars.

“When you are able to take that many cars off the road, it creates a lot of possibilities. You can create smaller roads, you can create much smaller car parks,” Parker added. “I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward.”

NuTonomy was formed in 2013 by Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers working on robotics and autonomous vehicles for the Defense Department, and currently has offices in Massachusetts and Singapore. They received Singapore’s approval to test self-driving cars in one-north earlier this year, and it announced a research partnership with Singapore’s Land Transport Authority earlier this month. Pretty impressive for a 50-man strong company.

The team behind the autonomous taxis. Image via nuTonomy.

The team behind the autonomous taxis.
Image via nuTonomy.

Iagnemma says that they chose Singapore for their testing area because it has good weather, quality infrastructure, and drivers who tend to obey traffic laws — an ideal spot to test autonomous vehicles. Due to limited available space, Singapore’s also been on the lookout for non-traditional ways to grow its economy, so it’s been supportive of autonomous vehicle research. Delphi Corp., which is also working on autonomous vehicle software, was recently selected to test autonomous vehicles on the island and plans to start next year.

“We face constraints in land and manpower. We want to take advantage of self-driving technology to overcome such constraints, and in particular to introduce new mobility concepts which could bring about transformational improvements to public transport in Singapore,” said Pang Kin Keong, Singapore’s Permanent Secretary for Transport and the chairman of its committee on autonomous driving.

Users are reporting that nuTonomy’s taxis work like a dream. Olivia Seow, one of the riders the company selected, took a one-mile ride on Monday. She said she was nervous at first, then surprised as the steering wheel started turning by itself.

“It felt like there was a ghost or something,” she said.

The ride was smooth and controlled, she said, and she was relieved to see that the car recognized even small obstacles like birds and motorcycles parked in the distance.

“I couldn’t see them with my human eye, but the car could, so I knew that I could trust the car,” she said.

An Associated Press reporter took a ride on Wednesday and reported that the safety driver had to step on the brakes once when a car was obstructing the test car’s lane and another vehicle, which appeared to be parked, suddenly began moving in the oncoming lane.

Iagnemma is confident that the software can be relied on to make good decisions. For the future, nuTonomy hopes to eventually partner up with automakers, tech and logistics companies and other industry leaders to further the development of autonomous vehicles.

“What we’re finding is the number of interested parties is really overwhelming,” he said.


How bringing cougars to cities could actually save lives

Allowing cougars to re-populate back to their historic range could save hundreds of human lives and prevent tens of thousand of injuries, a new study reports. Counter-intuitive as this may seem, the numbers actually add up — while we may expect some property damage from the predators, they’d actually help us out in the end by keeping the US’s deer population in check.

Deer are most active between 6 and 9 p.m. and generally travel in herds – if you see one, there is a strong possibility others are nearby.
Image credits State Farm/Flickr

If I asked you to pick the animals with the highest human death toll between deers and cougars, which would you pick? The cougars, undoubtedly. And you’d be wrong. Sure, a cougar is fiercer than a deer, it has both teeth and claws and isn’t shy about using them while a deer is uh…a nuisance? But by sheer weight of numbers (and an inability to act when confronted with headlights) white-tailed deer in the US cause more than a million car collisions, resulting in more than 200 deaths, every year.

By the early 1900s, we pushed cougars away from our cities because they were dangerous, but a new study suggests this exact trait is why we should bring them back. Laura R. Prugh, a wildlife scientist at the University of Washington, Sophie L. Gilbert, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Idaho and several colleagues argue that allowing eastern cougars to return to their historic range could prevent 155 human deaths, 21,400 human injuries, and save $2.3 billion over the course of 30 years.

The team bases their estimations on studies they performed in 19 states including South Carolina, Maine, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Missouri. Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland and Illinois were historically part of the eastern cougar’s territory, however, they lack the required open forestland to support a viable cougar population today, the team reported. They also said that if left to their own devices, it’s entirely possible that the cougars will re-populate these areas on their own: over the past few decades, they’re been sighted in parts of the Midwest and more recently in the East. Dr. Prugh advocates for this kind of natural repopulation, which would face less resistance than a human-engineered one, she believes.

Pictured: statistically less dangerous to you than a deer.
Image credits Wikimedia user Dcoetzee

They looked at the number of individuals to see how deer populations grow in each area, how many car crashes involve deer and how they increase as the deer population grows. They looked at cougars’ hunting behavior, and settled for an average of 259 deer kills per individual per average lifespan of 6 years, and an 850 square miles area of forested land needed to sustain a wild population of the felines.

They then tested several mathematical models to calculate the cougars’ effect on the deer population. The first question they needed to consider was if cougars would prey on the deer that are too starved, old, or sick to survive and don’t actually cause accidents. Dr. Prugh calculated for a “conservative” 75% of deer kills as animals that would’ve died anyway.  They also considered that as adult deer decrease in number, more fawns survive — so killing deer doesn’t immediately shrink the population.

But it’s not all roses. The catch is that we’re dealing with dangerous, deadly predators here, which are perfectly capable of killing humans. Their population would stabilize at considerable numbers in some states — about 1000 in New York and Wisconsin each, around 350 in Missouri and between 8-15 in New Jersey, the team estimates. They also expect to see livestock loss of around US$2.35 million per year in the areas, and some pet loss, though the team wasn’t able to estimate this — since there is little data on what happens to pets after they are lost.

The scientists also estimated that we could expect less than one victim per year, for a total of under 30 lives lost, far less than the number of lives saved. But they admit that the emotional response to predators is one element they can’t factor in — no matter how many people are saved in the end, death by deer is very different to death by cougar.

“The idea of being killed in a car crash with a deer just doesn’t scare people the way the idea of a cougar leaping on your back in the woods does,” Dr. Prugh said.

But she hopes that if cougars do return to the Eastern states, an understanding that they could bring tangible benefits will make people “a little more accepting, even if they are still scared.”

The full paper titled ” Socioeconomic benefits of large carnivore recolonization through reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions” has been published online in the journal Conservation Letters.

Simulate your way out of (or into) the perfect traffic jam

Traffic jams are a universally miserable experience, no matter when or when they happen. There are numerous factors that can cause one to happen. Sometimes, when the cause is clear, say construction works or a car crash that needs to be cleared away, most of us can keep our frustration in check. But when you’ve been spending the last half hour inching your way to an intersection and then passing through without seeing any apparent reason for the slowdown, it’s much, much worse. The pointlessness of it all is enough to bring you to your boiling point.


But there’s always a cause behind the jam, even if not readily apparent. Computer models like Traffic-Simulation are designed to figure out how each traffic component adds towards this infuriating result. The simulation models various conditions such as the number of trucks or cars on the road, average distance and speed of cars, lane geometry and so forth, to explain how traffic jams develop. The idea is to use the simulations to figure out what might happen if traffic patterns shift, and predict problem areas before they happen.

The website was created by Dresden University of Technology Professor Martin Treiber, and can currently model a single scenario, but more features are planned for the future. The ring road was implemented first to illustrate ‘shockwave’ slowdowns — traffic jams that progress through a line of traffic from the first row of cars, as described in this video from the University of Nagoya, Japan:

So even in perfect conditions, with everyone driving at the same speeds, it’s still really hard for everything to run smoothly (except if you’re an ant). Even something as innocuous as adjusting the number of trucks on the road can cause unbelievable congestion in the simulation. So give it a go, try toying around with the variables to find what it takes to make traffic flow merrily along or create the mother of all traffic congestions.

And next time you’re stuck in traffic you’ll have a much better understanding of exactly “why. aren’t. we. moving. forward?!” Not sure that’s going to make the experience any more pleasant, though.


A sixth sense protects distracted drivers when they are absent-minded or upset, but not texting

As a Reddit user eloquently pointed out, every driver knows the feeling of driving 20-30 km and not remembering how you went through it, or even how you survived it. It’s almost like a sixth sense that protects you – but it doesn’t help you at all when you’re texting.

One of the 59 volunteers in a distracted driving study by the University of Houston and Texas A&M Transportation Institute sits in a high-fidelity driving simulator.
Credit: Malcolm Dcosta

Led by Ioannis Pavlidis from UH and Robert Wunderlich of TTI, the research studied how drivers behave when they are absent minded, emotionally charged or engaged in texting. The study involved 59 volunteers who were asked to drive the same segment of highway four times — under ‘normal conditions,’ while being distracted with challenging questions, while distracted with emotionally charged questions and while preoccupied with texting trivialities. To avoid any bias, the order of the drives was randomized.

Of course, in all three distracting cases, the drivers’ ability decreased significantly, but texting caused jittery handling and significant lane deviations, creating overall completely unsafe driving conditions.

“A likely explanation for this paradox is the function performed by a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC,” Pavlidis said. “ACC is known to automatically intervene as an error corrector when there is conflict. In this case, the conflict comes from the cognitive, emotional and sensorimotor, or texting, stressors. This raises the levels of physiological stress, funneling ‘fight or flight’ energy to the driver’s arms, resulting in jittery handling of the steering wheel.”

The ACC is, in a way, the “sixth sense” taking care of you when you’re tired or in distressed, counterbalancing jitter and nullifying or minimizing any emerging errors. But in order for the ACC to intervene it needs support from the driver’s eye-hand coordination loop. If this loop breaks, which it does when the driver texts, then ACC fails and the jitter control fails too.

“The driver’s mind can wander and his or her feelings may boil, but a sixth sense keeps a person safe at least in terms of veering off course,” Pavlidis said. “What makes texting so dangerous is that it wreaks havoc into this sixth sense. Self-driving cars may bypass this and other problems, but the moral of the story is that humans have their own auto systems that work wonders, until they break.”

The study can benefit both drivers, as well as the manufacturing community. Basically, everything that’s distressing can impede your ability to drive, and scientists want to quantify it.

“Following up on the results of our science study, we are currently looking into the development of a car system to monitor outward driving behaviors, such as steering jitter or lane deviation, as well as the internal state of the driver that causes them,” Pavlidis said. “This system, which I call ‘stressalyzer,’ a play on the word breathalyzer, may serve not only as a ‘black box’ in car accidents, but also as a driver alert and prevention mechanism, since it will continuously sense a driver drifting to distracted mode.”

But the worst thing is, by far, texting. Not only does this drastically reduce your attention, not only does it force both your eyes and hands away from driving, but it also prevents your brain from doing damage control. Just don’t do it, ever.

Expert warns smart-cars will promote sex behind the wheel and distracted driving

Will widespread use of smart cars make roads safer or actually more dangerous? One Canadian expert is raising concerns that as automated systems take up the bulk of navigating tasks, drivers will keep their hands less on the driving wheel…and more on the person (persons?) next to them.

Image via scmp.com

Drop whatever you were doing and rejoice because science has delivered.

“I am predicting that, once computers are doing the driving, there will be a lot more sex in cars,” said Barrie Kirk of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence.

It truly is a wonderful time to be alive. But, before we go about congratulating and patting each other on the back in satisfaction, is this a good thing? I mean beyond the obvious fact that we all like to get it on.

There is legitimate concern around this question, not because of the cars themselves but because of the drivers. I see people texting or talking on the phone at the wheel — and these aren’t particularly enjoyable activities — every day, driving regular vehicles without any computers to watch the road for them. But if people trust their cars enough to handle themselves in traffic, they’ll throw their phones along with their pants on the back seat before you can say “responsible driving practices.”

“That’s one of several things people will do which will inhibit their ability to respond quickly when the computer says to the human, ‘Take over.'”

Canadian Press obtained several federal emails discussing Tesla’s self-driving cars under the Access to Information Act. In them, officials tasked with constructing the legislative framework for autonomous cars took up the issue in the briefing notes compiled for Transport Minister Marc Garneau after his appointment last fall.

“The issue of the attentive driver is … problematic,” one such email reads. “Drivers tend to overestimate the performance of automation and will naturally turn their focus away from the road when they turn on their auto-pilot.”

The emails cite several pieces of footage showing Tesla drivers doing anything else than paying attention to the road, such as reading a newspaper for example. Other videos show Tesla owners recording flaws in how the car’s autopilot system reacts to changes in road markings.

Therein lies the problem: Tesla itself made it clear that the autopilot system only has limited autonomy and functionality. It’s designed to work in tandem with a human, not to replace him. And people still behave like it’s their personal chauffeur. Transport Canada tested several semi-autonomous vehicles, such as Mercedes’ C-Class or the Infiniti Q50 (but not the Tesla so far,) the documents go on to detail. While they found the systems efficient at what they do, the technology is still in its infancy.

“It really needs to be emphasized that these vehicles are not truly self-driving,” officials said. They predicted that fully-autonomous cars and trucks are “still a few years away.”

Current vehicle safety standards don’t prohibit driverless cars from zooming on Canada’s roadways, and the country is now considering how to regulate such vehicles.

“But last month’s federal budget included money for Transport Canada to develop regulations around automated vehicle design. Those regulations, at least initially, would require that the vehicles are equipped with a ‘failsafe mechanism that can respond to situations when the driver is not available,'” CBC writes. “Ontario also set out some regulations, including a requirement that an expert in autonomous vehicles be in the driver’s seat and able to assume full control at a moment’s notice.”

The “failsafe mechanism” basically means that the car should be able to safely get out of traffic until a human assumes control — and that should be at the center of how we handle this I think. Because that “expert in autonomous vehicles,ready at a moment’s notice” part? I think that’s wishful thinking.

The whole point of having autonomous cars is that no driver is required, and people won’t be willing to wait, clutching the wheel, on the off chance they’re needed. It’s got to go all the way, or at least allow for a window of time in which the driver can analyze the situation, plan his movements and assume control. Assuming that a driver who may not have been paying attention to his or her surroundings can control a vehicle right off the bat is a tall order however, Kirk believes.

“People will not be able to respond in time.”

It’s a good thing that we come face to face with these issues now, before autonomous vehicles truly hit the roads. But they just aren’t here yet, so you’ll have to keep your eyes on the road until they do. And yes, your hands on the wheel, too.


Legal, but not safe: small distractions make driving drunk lethal

Even though driving after drinking small amounts is legal, it’s most definitely not safe, research from the University of Kentucky (UK) in the U.S. finds. Nicholas van Dyke and Mark Fillmore at UK reported that for intoxicated drivers, even those driving under the legally accepted alcohol limit, small distractions such as a text message or dashboard controls are just too much to handle safely. The study provides the first scientific evidence on the impact such distractions have on the ability of liquored drivers to safely control vehicles.

Image via huffingtonpost

In the US. an average of 28 alcohol-related traffic deaths are reported daily. Law makers are considering lowering the legal alcohol limit for drivers, currently at 0.08 percent, to 0.05 percent in an effort to reduce the number of incidents in the future.

Such laws however are based on the assumption that it’s safe to drive while below that limit – but it’s not. They do not take into account how distractions further influence a driver’s ability to control their vehicle.

Van Dyke and Fillmore wanted to see just how much of a toll they take on the driver. They tested 50 adult participants, gauging how they can maneuver a 5.9 mile drive through a typical urban setting after having just one drink.

They employed a driving simulator, and took note of how well participants continuously adapted to the road — such as making small adjustments to the steering wheel to keep the vehicle on a lane, how often they crossed into another lane or veered onto the edge of the road. Each test lasted 6 minutes, but during that time the drivers also had to respond to small red circles appearing on their simulated windshield.

According to the researchers, this distraction task was no more difficult than what drivers experience on a daily basis while reading or typing text messages or any of the numerous — and increasingly complex — dashboard controls that they have to keep track of on a modern vehicle.

Separately, alcohol and the distractions both impaired key aspects of driving performance, including within-line deviations, steering rate and lane exceedance. The magnitude to which alcohol impaired safe driving was increased two-fold when a driver also had to deal with distractions, even when under the legal US. alcohol limit.

“With continuing advancements in technology and the omnipresence of distractions while driving, it is becoming increasingly important to study the interaction between alcohol and distraction on driving,” van Dyke points out.

“A clearer understanding of how common distractions impact intoxicated drivers, especially at blood alcohol concentrations that are currently legal for driving in the United States, is an important step to reducing traffic accidents and fatalities and improving overall traffic safety,” Filmore added.

The findings were published in the journal Psychopharmacology.