UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 1 | Jan.
Cross-campus team probes smarter cars
Closure of Massachusetts lab translates to interdisciplinary opportunity
for UBC researchers
by Don Wells staff writer
A team of UBC researchers will investigate the possibilities of
intelligent human-automobile interfaces thanks to a $1.4 million
grant from Nissan Motor Co.
Project co-ordinator Ronald Rensink, an assistant professor in
both Psychology and Computer Science, worked closely with Nissan
during a six-year stint at Cambridge Basic Research, a partnership
involving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and
A UBC alumnus, Rensink asked Nissan to consider establishing a
similar lab at UBC following the closure of the Cambridge lab last
year. MIT also pitched the idea to Nissan but, according to Rensink,
the company chose UBC for the overall strength of its multidisciplinary
"I told them that there were some of the best people in the world
doing this kind of work here," says Rensink. "Not only that, but
we really work well together, which ultimately was the key to their
decision to select us over MIT."
The research is motivated by the increasing complexity of driving
caused by more sophisticated automobile displays as well as increasingly
crowded traffic systems, Rensink explains.
As technology improves, it is becoming possible to give more information
to the driver -- for example, indicating the presence of a car in
the driver's blind spot, or conditions on the road ahead. But more
information alone will not work, and can even be hazardous, he says.
"If too much information is presented, it will confuse rather than
help the driver," says Rensink, whose research focuses on visual
"The key to making driving safe and comfortable is to combine knowledge
of the perceptual and cognitive systems of humans with knowledge
of the driving task itself so that only the relevant information
There are two particularly important aspects of the research, he
The first is to determine the limits in human perception and cognition
that will ultimately constrain the effectiveness of an interface,
for example, limitations in attention.
The second is to determine the extent to which different kinds
of sensory inputs -- audio, visual or touch -- can be used as effective
carriers of information.
"Our strategy is to work closely with their engineers to provide
them with general guidelines for the development of new interfaces,"
"Once they have that information, they can design the actual devices."
The first half of the funding will be allocated this month to five
researchers, including Rensink, Computer Science Asst. Prof. Karon
MacLean, Psychology Prof. Jim Enns and assistant professors Alan
Kingstone and Vince DiLollo.
The second half will be allocated in April to a wider set of researchers
that may include members of the departments of Linguistics, Philosophy
and Electrical and Computer Engineering.
The project will be an important part of the Institute for Computing,
Information and Cognitive Systems, a new UBC initiative in the multidisciplinary
study of information processing systems.