Research company the Transport Research Laboratory has developed a new protocol for evaluating in-vehicle systems designed to provide a safety benefit, and is now looking to push it out to a wider audience in an attempt to become the recognised market leader in assessing the credentials of such systems.

Earlier this year, the Romex Driver Protection App, which limits smartphone use when it detects that a vehicle is in motion and was a 2013 BusinessCar Techies winner, was the first product to be given recommended status.

“We thought there would be a benefit in developing a scoring system to help categorise the products we were testing, to show what had strong benefit and what needed improving,” TRL human factors researcher Stephanie Cynk tells BusinessCar.

The protocol was devised off the back of a checklist developed in the 1990s to assess in-built vehicle information systems, and was updated in 2011.

“Before, we didn’t provide an overall rating or recommended status, that’s what this portal does,” says Cynk, whose role covers the broad range of ways humans interact with the road and vehicle network.
TRL divides the scoring into four sections:

?  relevance – how the product addresses human risk factors
?  usability – ease of operation
?  resilience – how easy is it to intentionally or unintentionally misuse or abuse the product
?  deployment – whether and how smoothly the device works on different platforms.

‘Relevance’ is based on statistical analysis of the problem the device is attempting to address, while the other areas are decided by a TRL product assessment.

“A passenger [assessor] goes into a vehicle and spends half a day trying different things, trying to get around it, seeing how it works and how it could be misused,” explains Cynk.

The scores are then translated into one of four levels: no recommendation (there’s not enough benefit or it could even make a situation worse), TRL recommends, TRL highly recommends, and TRL essential product. However, the organisation doesn’t expect a product to achieve that last status any time soon.
“We want to recognise where some products may get to – really focused products that would stop all accidents and no users could get around them,” says Cynk. “It will be a difficult status to achieve.”

Romex managed highly recommended when its app was tested earlier this year, a status that is valid for 12 months.

“We initially provided them with some recommendations of how to improve, and they did so,” Cynk reveals. “We have done some others that have not been published, including one that didn’t work in the way it was intended, and in the past people have come to us with prototypes that are not yet ready to be published, but they want us to test them to see how they can be improved.

“We’re looking to do more assessments for people with apps that make claims to improve safety and have benefits, but don’t have much to back-up their claims,” she continues. “This is proper independent evaluation.”

According to TRL’s human factors researcher, the Romex app was “quite typical of the type of product we would expect”.

The company has devised the criteria to try and cover as wide a base as possible, including apps but also any device that interacts with the vehicle.

“We’re keen to push TRL credentials and be a market leader,” continues Cynk. “The protocol is ready to go when people want us to do testing for them.”

The plan is to build awareness of the safety system evaluation protocol over the next 12 months.
“We would like to do more to show where products are great and where others need more input, and ultimately solve problems or are improving road safety,” says Cynk.

Deploying platoons to improve driving safety

TRL is working on developing technology for so-called ‘platooning’, where trucks, initially, but potentially cars and vans too, station themselves behind a lead vehicle and are essentially towed along the motorway using technology to keep the vehicles close together. This has fuel economy benefits of 10-15%, according to TRL academy director Dr Nick Reed, on top of advantages in terms of driver fatigue and reaction times.

“The technology is feasible and we are at the point where we should try on-road trials,” says Reed. “There are fuel economy benefits for all, and in terms of driver safety and stress.”

Were they to take place, trials would be of trucks on motorways, as Reed explains: “There are difficulties with conditions and braking performance, so the software would need to take that into account, so for the time being we’re just talking about trucks on motorways”.  

Reed also says there are driver psychology factors to take into account, with early research finding that drivers coming out of a platoon tend to then drive more closely to other vehicles.