Driving with Ford

What do you do with someone who can’t stand the thrill of the open road? If you’re related to Jason Ford, you put on The Ramones and hope for the best.

‘Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.’ – Albert Einstein.

A relative of mine, bless her, is what you’d call a nervous driver. Very nervous, in fact. She takes a downer before driving to calm her frayed nerves and then chugs along at a steady 40mph, regardless of whether she’s on a dual carriageway or in a sleepy Suffolk village near to where she lives.

It pains me to say this, but I think she could do with some help. And, as if by some editorial deadline day miracle, help could be close at hand.

Let me explain. You see, over in the USA, a team led by Elaine Chew of the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering has developed a computer-based system lets a user “drive” a piece of music, using just a wheel and foot controls.

Information from a musical score is used to create a “road” on the computer screen that corresponds to the structure of the musical piece. The road’s turns suggest to the ‘driver’ when to slow down and speed up. However, the ultimate decision on what to do at each turn is entirely in the driver’s hands (or foot). The foot pedals control both the tempo and the volume of the music. Additionally, buttons mounted on the wheel act as the equivalent of the pedals on a piano, making the notes either sustain or cut off crisply.

Chew says that the system allows everyone a chance to experience what it’s like to perform as well as appreciate the decisions made by a musician in interpreting music.

But how will this new fangled system help my relative become a better driver? The answer is staggering simple – it won’t. But if the USC researchers took a bit of a different tack and turned their technology on its head, it just might.

Instead of developing a system that allows folks to ‘drive music,’ why couldn’t they build one that automatically generates ‘driving music?’ Here’s how it would work: at the start of the journey, an electronic onboard device would select a piece of music appropriate to the road and weather conditions, which would be defined by information gathered from a satellite. As the journey progressed, the computer system would refine the musical selection as it deemed appropriate.

So when my relative drove the long and winding roads of Suffolk, the system might be prompted to play the Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G-minor by Johannes Brahms, a piece that contains many varied fast and slow passages, prompting her to speed up and slow down at the proper time. When she entered the constant velocity zone of a motorway, the system might respond by delivering the dulcet tones of ‘Sheena is a punk rocker,’ by The Ramones, a nippy little piece that remains constant in pace or intensity – a constant reminder for her to remain at 70 mph.

On the other hand, maybe she should just get some driving lessons?

Jason Ford

Deputy Editor

The Engineer Online