A smart assistant is being developed to help drivers cope with the increasing number of electronic devices in cars. When complete, the assistant will decide when it is too dangerous for a driver to be disturbed, and will divert phone calls to voicemail, hide arriving emails and lock the controls of the satellite navigation system and CD player.

A clutch of accidents has been blamed on the workload that in-car devices can place on drivers, and this week the UK became the latest country to ban the use of hand-held cellphones by drivers. Portugal and some other countries have even banned voice-operated hands-free phones.

Yet while the laws get tougher, the number of gadgets designed for cars continues to increase. Some luxury models are now fitted with internet terminals specifically designed to offer information while the car is on the move, such as the location of parking places and filling stations.

Now a system being developed by engineers at BMW and Robert Bosch, funded partly by the German government, assesses whether the driver is becoming overloaded, and uses this to decide whether it is safe to use these gadgets on the move.

But assessing the driver’s workload is a difficult task, says Walter Piechulla, the architect of the system at the University of Regensburg. Tuning a radio used to be considered the worst acceptable distraction for a driver. But cars are now fitted with far more complicated devices.

The new system uses a variety of sensors to detect other traffic, the road layout and the driver’s actions (see below). It then applies this information to work out what sort of situation the driver is heading for ­ overtaking, turning, reaching an intersection or hard braking to avoid a hazard, for example ­ and gives it a pre-established complexity rating.

“We not only take into account the current situation, but also the oncoming road situation,” Piechulla says. If the complexity rating exceeds a certain threshold, the system activates a “divert” function until the complexity level drops.

Piechulla tested the system in Germany on 12 drivers ranging from novices to experienced drivers. It significantly reduced the mental workload of even the most experienced drivers.

More here.