Dashboards made safer

The good news is that future electronic dash displays will provide drivers valuable information about their vehicles, road conditions, preferred routes and much more. The bad news is that these displays can take drivers’ attention off the road. Fortunately, there’s more good news: Several companies are working to ensure that new displays minimize driver distraction.

Planar Systems Inc. of Beaverton, Ore., is one such company, and its customers include Mack and Freightliner. Planar has not only worked on developing high-contrast units that can be read very quickly, but they have conducted serious research to find out how quickly drivers can read displays in a moving truck cab. Freightliner chose Planar to develop the screen for the truck maker’s Truck Productivity Computer because of Planar’s willingness to tackle a major challenge: Fit a maximum amount of data onto a screen designed to fit into a standard radio dash-panel slot.

Planar’s displays use electroluminescent technology, which, according to testing by DaimlerChrysler, offers increased brightness and contrast compared to other types of dash displays. The goal was to exploit this technology by using a smaller letter font than what would be required with most other displays. The job of putting the font on the screen was easy enough, but the question remained: Will the driver be able to read the information quickly enough to get his eyes back on the road before getting into trouble?

High-contrast displays are much easier to read in a vehicle than displays without good contrast between the letters and their background. The contrast on the Planar display is 50 times the minimum contrast recommended by the Department of Transportation. If a higher contrast speeds up reading time, the safety benefits can be significant. Estimates of safe glance time at a screen for a driver range from 2.5 seconds down to 1.6 seconds. But in 2.5 seconds, a driver going 60 mph would have his eyes off the road while his truck traveled 220 feet.

Planar’s work isn’t based solely on theory; the company had help from the DaimlerChrysler Research and Technology Center, North America. DaimlerChrysler tested the ability of 29 volunteers, including 14 truck drivers, to read letters displayed on a screen for varying periods of time and at varying sizes. Based on the results, researchers then validated their choice of a 10-point font in real-world, worst-case vibration conditions. They used 11 truck drivers in a bobtail COE tractor on the road during daylight hours. On average, drivers could correctly read words or FM frequency numbers in 1.41 seconds – just under 1 second to look at the screen and the rest of the time transitioning from the road to the screen and back.

Chances are other companies will begin to put more effort into ensuring that dash displays are as safe as possible. Perhaps someday all drivers can have their gauges and read them too.