Dean's Distinguished Lecture: Reates Curry, Ph.D.

Reates Curry returned to campus during National Engineers Week to reminisce, reflect, and talk research. Selected to present the 2016 Dean’s Distinguished Lecture on Wednesday, February 24, Curry discussed her career trajectory and research as a technical expert and human factors specialist at Ford Motor Company. Her work includes advancing driver safety innovation through simulated human interactions with technologies and systems.

In developing driver protection and accident reduction technologies, Curry’s work involves Ford’s state-of-the-art VIRTTEX (Virtual Test Track Experiment) driving simulator. VIRTTEX features a suspended dome that hosts a stationary vehicle surrounded by a 360 degree virtual environment that operates while it moves and tilts on pistons, giving test drivers the sensation of driving.

According to Curry, “Our job is to look at driver performance issues and understand them, so that we can develop technologies – like forward collision warning systems – that protect drivers in a crash or prevent accidents from happening, or at least lessen their severity.”

Ford has a large research division, which Curry said many don’t know about the automotive giant. With research facilities in Michigan, Palo Alto, and Germany, the company conducts a lot of collaborative research with other automotive companies and third party organizations. Much of their research is long-term, focused five to ten years out.

Some of the areas Curry is directly involved in concern the human physiological state, including driver fatigue, attention, alertness, and response to distractions. Her team uses “robust devices” that incorporate brain signals, heart rate, and eye movements in advancing new technologies and automotive features.

Curry earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri and a master’s degree from Purdue. She holds a doctoral degree from Rutgers, studying biomedical engineering. She is a two-time winner of the prestigious Henry Ford Technology Award for being on the team that designed VIRTTEX and more recently in 2013, for her contributions in the development of a new technology called the driver Workload Estimator (WLE). This technology takes information like speed, acceleration, current states such as if windshield wipers are on and predicts whether the driver is in a high workload situation that demands a high level of driver attention. If, for example, a call comes in while a driver is in a high workload situation, the WLE will send the call directly to voicemail to avoid distraction.

During her visit to the School of Engineering, Curry met with students involved in SWE (Society of Women Engineers) and MEET (Minority Engineering Educational Task). She also spent time with faculty members Marco Gruteser and Peter Jin, each of whom are actively involved in developing research and testing platform for innovative technologies in transportation.