In the early 1990s, Tom Dingus had an idea that bridged the gap between research and real-world driving.

At the time, most transportation safety research was conducted in a simulator, a significantly controlled test track environment, or through analysis of crash databases. Dingus strived to step outside of the controlled environment box and into a natural transportation environment — the open road.

A director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s (VTTI) for more than 20 years, Dingus pioneered unobtrusively placing cameras and sensors inside a volunteer’s vehicle to assess driver behavior, crashes, and near-crash incidents. Naturalistic driving studies, as it became known, utilizes VTTI’s data acquisition systems to create a continuous stream of data — from key on to key off — which is time synchronized, captured, transferred, stored at Virginia Tech.

“The ultimate goal of the project was to fill a knowledge gap,” Dingus said. “The gap was between crash databases where you can't really understand driver behavior in the seconds preceding a crash or even during a crash and test track studies, which are really very valuable but contrived.”

Over the past 35 years, naturalistic driving study data has been collected from nearly 7,000 vehicles, including cars, tractor-trailers, bicycles, and e-scooters. It would take about 1,030 years to watch all the video. The data has ultimately been used to improve the transportation system for everyone who uses the roads, while also helping secure funding from over 100 sponsors and propelling VTTI to its current status as a top transportation research institute.

Creating a data acquisition system

The naturalistic driving studies concept was just the beginning. Dingus wanted to instrument 100 cars, a project that eventually came to fruition when it was funded in 2000 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

A data acquisition system (DAS) installed in the trunk of a vehicle.
An original data acquisition system used in early days of the naturalistic driving studies data collection. Virginia Tech photo

“When I started, it took me three months to instrument a vehicle with the necessary equipment,” said Andy Petersen, the institute’s chief engineer. “When Tom had the idea that he wanted to instrument 100 cars, I thought he was crazy.”

With the federal funding as well as funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation, Petersen and Dingus helped create the first generation of data acquisition systems for the "100-car study, which was the first large-scale, naturalistic driving study ever undertaken.

The first-generation of the system was about the size of a briefcase and took eight hours to be installed by two people. With the initial prototype being created in the early 1990s, the footage was originally recorded on VHS tapes, but by the time 13-month 100-car study completed, the recordings were stored digitally.

Multiple generations of the system have been created since, each decreasing in equipment size, increasing in computing power, and shortening installation time, allowing for more cars to be used for data collection.

“The Hardware Engineering Lab at VTTI has been integral in the advancement of these systems,” said Carl Cospel, director of electronic systems and technology innovation at VTTI. “We design these to be able to collect the most accurate video and data that we possibly can  while being able to withstand the harsh environment that we find in vehicles, both electrical and environmental.”

The most recent data acquisition systems rolled out in 2016 and 2019. These Generation 3 systems provided HD and 4K video streams from digital cameras, higher sampling rates of sensors, and more expansion buses for integration with the latest generation vehicle networks. The enhanced recording resolution allowed for even further data review as researchers got a clearer picture of crash and near-crash incidents as well as driver distractions.

The “100-car study” received more than 15,000 citations and impacted safety regulations, driver distraction and impairment policies, and many more aspects of transportation on both a national and international scale. Since then, researchers from VTTI have expanded naturalistic driving studies to include tractor-trailers, motorcycles, bicycles, and even e-scooters.

Research to practice

In January 2021, Virginia became the 22nd state to ban handheld phone usage while driving. In support of this legislation, VTTI produced statistics that showed the dangers of distracted driving for both cars and trucks. 

“This work is continuously saving lives,” said Rich Hanowski, director of the Division of Freight, Transit, and Heavy Vehicle Safety at VTTI. “Our work has helped to evaluate hours-of-service regulations for truck drivers, creating a safer transportation system for all road users by mitigating truck driver fatigue.”

The tremendous amount of video and advanced sensor data collected has allowed researchers to make a positive impact on transportation such as changes to vehicle safety system design and policy recommendations to government and industry partners. By taking data collection out of controlled environments and into the real world at a large scale, it has empowered researchers from the institute to create a more equitable transportation system.

Data aquisiion systems "allow us to not only look at current problems in transportation but also work to develop solutions for the future,” said Miguel Perez, a research scientist at VTTI.

Diagram of DAS will call outs from VT Magazine
The data acquisition system host multiple components installed into a research vehicle. Illustration by Shanin Glenn for Virginia Tech.

The future of transportation safety

As VTTI celebrates its 35th year of advancing transportation through innovation, the need for continued research is increasingly important.

To assist in this workflow, researchers from the institute are embracing a new tactic that will decrease the ebbs and flows of research funding from private industry and government partners.

“Our next step is to engage in perpetual naturalistic driving systems,” said Jon Hankey, a senior transportation fellow at VTTI. “Through targeting the most advanced systems that are being put in the field and collecting naturalistic driving data on them, we will be able to constantly collect data and analyze it for future safety applications.”

With the increased load of research, an increased number of participants are needed to help shape the future of transportation.

Naturalistic driving studies paired with data acquisition systems have proven to be one of the most impactful transportation research methods. With the inclination to never stop, researchers from VTTI are ready to tackle the next transportation safety challenge in their mission to save lives, time, money, and protect the environment.

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