UMass Amherst Researcher Awarded Toyota Grants for Driver Studies

One study will explore how drivers learn to use advanced vehicle technologies, the other how hazard awareness training affects teen drivers’ safety over time

Anuj Pradhan, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, has received a total of $745,468 from the Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center (CSRC) to fund two grants: one to study how drivers learn to use advanced vehicle technologies such as adaptive cruise control and another to acquire a deeper understanding of teenagers’ driving safety by examining the effects of specific hazard awareness training and following their crash and citation outcomes over time. 

“We are very interested in reducing crashes, and therefore injuries and fatalities for motor vehicle crashes so that's really our guiding principle,” Pradhan says of his group’s work. “Our approach to doing that is by understanding the driver.” 

He is principal investigator on a $366,598 grant, “Consumer education for advanced vehicle technologies: Tailored training based on drivers’ self-perceptions and knowledge,” which will examine how drivers learn to use advanced vehicle technologies and automated systems, in this case adaptive cruise control. 

Anuj Pradhan
Anuj Pradhan

“Many cars have it now, and it is a very interesting and powerful driver assistance system, except if it is not used well, it can potentially be catastrophic,” he says. 

Traditional cruise control, which has been used for decades, allows a driver to set their car to a specific “cruising” speed and take their foot off the gas pedal. This is especially useful for long periods of highway driving. If the cruising car approaches a slower moving vehicle in its path, the driver must disengage cruise control by stepping on the gas or brake pedal or switching lanes to continue at speed. 

With adaptive cruise control, or ACC, the car will automatically adapt to speed changes, as well as keep a constant distance between it and the vehicle it is following. 

“It’s a game-changer, because you no longer have to look out for slower vehicles and take over,” Pradhan says. “It’s also a problem, because you no longer have to look out for vehicles, which means you are more likely to engage in something else” such as texting, he adds. 

“People have propensities to engage in distracting tasks anyway, and now if you have technology in the car that takes away from their driving responsibilities, then they’re going to engage even more in distracting tasks. That’s a big problem,” he said. 

For Toyota studies such as these can inform the future of its vehicle design. “This type of research is important as it tells us about how society uses and thinks about advanced vehicle technologies,” says John Lenneman, senior principal research scientist at CSRC. “In turn, this knowledge can be used to help develop future technologies.” 

The study won’t specifically examine driver distraction, but rather how drivers educate themselves about using adaptive cruise control as well as the depth of their understanding of both its capabilities and limitations. 

“If the car in front of you is too large — maybe it’s a dump truck — your vehicle may not detect it because it has a different size and shape signature than a regular car,” Pradhan says. “Or if you’re following a motorcycle, it might not detect it if you’re on a curve, or going uphill or downhill, or if it’s raining or snowing or sleeting or it’s foggy. There are all these limitations that a person really ought to know about these systems, and if they don’t, then it can be misused.” 

The ACC study will seek to recruit later this summer at least 50 drivers of vehicles equipped with ACC who will be studied over time. 

Pradhan is co-PI on the second $378,870 grant, “Risk Anticipation Training to Enhance Novice Driving (Risk-ATTEND): Efficacy Evaluation using Driving Simulation and Crash/Citation Records,” with his colleague Shannon Roberts, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering. The second study follows up on a previous $150,000 pilot grant from CSRC. 

Shannon Roberts
Shannon Roberts

Teen drivers have the highest risk of motor vehicle crashes compared to other age groups and are three times as likely to be involved in a fatal crash, per mile driven, than other drivers. The study’s goal will be to examine teenage drivers’ ability to perceive hazards by building on a successful but older computer-based training program to modernize it for today’s teen drivers. 

“The new cohort of teen drivers now have very different expectations, different attention spans,” Pradhan says. “The training that was developed early on looks dated, whereas kids today are used to much more slick interfaces.”  

He and Roberts will create an updated version of the program. The updated version will also be designed for different form factors such as tablets or via web app, making it more user-friendly and accessible to teen drivers. The program will be used to train teen drivers and the team will also evaluate its effectiveness by testing teens afterwards using driving simulators. The RiskATTEND study will seek to recruit teen drivers later this summer and interested teens or guardians may contact Pradhan or Roberts by email at if they are interested in participating. 

"We are also going to be looking at these drivers over time to see whether this training not only improves their skill on a driving simulator test, but if it also results in a reduction in their crash and citation records over time compared to a group who did not get this training,” Pradhan says. “It’s going to be a fun, challenging task, but it should yield very interesting results, because we are interested in seeing what the real-world impact of these particular trainings could be.” 

“Toyota hopes the Risk-ATTEND program may help provide teens with much-needed exposure to difficult driving scenarios without them having to be in the car,” says Tina Sayer, CSRC senior principal engineer and teen driving safety expert.