It is easy to forget how enjoyable driving can be. Everyday drivers sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, ill-timed lights, and overwhelming connectivity all contribute to distraction, the fear of missing out, as well as more severe issues, such as guilt, anxiety, and depression.
Faced with such frustrations, who wouldn’t want to revamp their daily commute? Thoughts of an autonomous future often inspire images of reclining your seat, sipping coffee and checking your email while your vehicle drives you to work.
But the push towards autonomy is plagued with passive fatigue, and more complications arise when detached from the activity of driving.
Many car enthusiasts find driving as a source of pleasure. Driving has been a way to escape the mundane parts of everyday life, a time to be alone and think, or space to vent. It can revive the soul and calm the mind.
Together with UNIT9, GTB and King’s College London, Ford looked at how racecar drivers approach the driving experience and if it’s possible to reduce stress and boost drivers’ mood when they get behind the wheel.
The Psychology of Performance
The theory driving the collaborative study is that professional racecar drivers have a unique mental capacity for the extreme stress experienced and the challenges found, behind the wheel.
The hypothesis is that by understanding the mental capacity of professional race car drivers, we can learn how to perform better in other challenging situations.
“When an athlete or driver needs to move beyond their core performance they need to expand their perception and tune into subtle sensory signals to try to find the ones that matter,” said Dr. Elias Mouchlianitis, a neuroscience researcher at King’s College London.
The research team studied five-time FIA World Rally Championship winner, Sébastian Ogier, and Andy Priaulx – a three-time winner of the FIA World Touring Car Championship, in addition to a handful of everyday people.
Average drivers and Ford Performance pros participated in virtual challenges on a driving simulator. The team measured reaction times and concentration while drivers wore an EEG headset, a device that can read electrical activity from the brain.
Upon completion, the data revealed that professional drivers could ignore distractions 40-percent better than the average person when traveling at high speeds and in a state of high focus.
The study illuminates pro drivers’ ability to be always “switched on” and using the maximum capacity to their task at hand.
Given the level of training and discipline required to compete at a high level in motorsports, the results are not very surprising.
“When things get tough, and the pressure’s on, that’s when you need to get in this zone, and the good guys, the successful racing drivers, are able to do that whether that’s on track or off it,” said Priaulx.
Both of those groups who practiced the breathing meditation and visualization techniques improved by as much as 50 percent and had mental reactions much more like the professional drivers.
“Our experiment showed that simple mental training ahead of a task could help anyone to improve focus and ignore distractions, making them more successful,” Priaulx said.
Using breathing exercises, meditation, and visualization techniques to describe the track ahead allowed the everyday drivers to improve their focus and performance by as much as 50-percent.
Mental training techniques and practicing mindfulness can have long-term benefits for both physical wellbeing and mental health. However, the ability to “live in the moment” and focus on a single task is what makes mindfulness especially relevant for professional drivers who have to make split-second decisions under incredible stress.
“The experiment is quite exceptional as we’re using expert drivers, which is a population that researchers don’t often have access to, and using a control group of normal drivers,” explains Dr. Rita de Oliveira, a sport psychologist. She added that mental training could reinforce the neural connections used in driving performance which has applications for everyday life.
Ford developed an FIA approved EEG-equipped racing helmet for its professional drivers that transmit brain activity data to the team during a race. They recorded driver focus to get a measure of the mental effort drivers dedicated to driving.
“Using EEG, we could make a mental map of the track, and measure the mental energy that the driver is dedicating to the task,” said Yates Buckley, technical director at UNIT9. “Through this innovative approach, we can work with a whole new set of metrics.”
While Ford monitors physical attributes such as hydration and heart rate already, understanding the driver’s mental state during a race is the next frontier in performance.
In a world bombarded with information and distracting technology, the ability to concentrate on the task at hand and perform at a high level is essential.
We call it speed therapy
Driving in the right mental state shows the potential for improving a person’s physical and mental health behind the wheel.
To demonstrate, Ford Performance took a group of drivers, each struggling with stress, to the racetrack, and partnered them with professional stunt drivers, like Crystal Hooks.
Hooks instructed drivers to burn rubber, accelerate through the straightaway, drift across the lanes, and to put their stress on hold while focusing on the road ahead. The exercise helped these drivers find a way to smile behind the wheel.
Ford also studied how driving a performance car feels compared to other feel-good activities.
For the study, participants wore various sensors and were asked to perform several entertaining activities that capture peak moments of thrills, or “buzz moments.”
The research team measured participants’ emotions while dining, shopping, dancing, watching “Game of Thrones,” watching sports, enjoying a passionate kiss, riding a roller coaster, and commuting in a sports car. The cars used for the study were a Ford Focus RS, Focus ST and, of course, a Mustang.
“High-intensity buzz moments” experienced:
- Roller Coaster: 3
- Driving: 2.1
- Shopping: 1.7
- “Game of Thrones”: 1.5
- Football Game: 1.5
- Kissing: 0
- Salsa Dancing: 0
- Dining: 0
Unsurprisingly, the study found that riding a roller coaster provides the most concentrated form of buzz moments. However, the study also found that driving a performance car is the most reliable and the most accessible way to experience them.
Ford is also studying ways for cars to better respond to driver emotions. Ford worked with neurologists and designers to create the Ford Performance Buzz Car, which translates driver emotions visually.
Based on a Ford Focus RS, the Buzz Car is fitted with wearable technology, a high-performance gaming PC with artificial intelligence software, light strips and thousands of LED lights. The setup allows the car to translate the driver’s emotions into dazzling light displays on the exterior of the vehicle.
For more information about the Psychology of Performance, visit Ford Performance.