Towards real-time detection of cognitive effort in driving: contribution of a cardiac measurement

By Christophe Jallais, Alexandra Fort, Fabien Moreau, Jordan Navarro, Catherine Gabaude, Catherine Gabaude

In 2013, attention deficits accounted for 40 to 50% of injury accidents. Recent studies have succeeded in detecting impaired states of attention, with a view to assisting the driver, and provide a new opportunity to increase road safety. This study focuses on the detection of drivers’ cognitive effort and seeks, through the study of heart rate change (HRC), to identify a sensitive indicator of cognitive effort in short time windows.
Eighteen young drivers participated in the study and took part in 8 experimental sessions where they performed a passive or active cognitive task (counting) while driving or not. The counting task had two difficulty levels (counting of beeps vs visuospatial skills and number adding). Participants’ heart rates were monitored during all tasks.
Previous results recorded in laboratory conditions have been replicated during driving: during the first seconds after a cognitive effort, there is a slight deceleration and a sharp acceleration in heart rate. Conversely, in the absence of cognitive effort, simple cardiac deceleration was observed. Our study confirms that it is possible to distinguish HRC in response to a cognitive effort over short time windows by observing the grand mean of evoked cardiac responses at 0.5s intervals from stimulus onset when averaged over a significant number of episodes. The new opportunities offered with this cognitive effort indicator are discussed. Recent literature data show that the removal of respiratory influence from heart rate is feasible. With such correction, it seems possible to improve the sensitivity of HRC, and HR acceleration should be observed without averaging the HRC over many trials. If this proves effective, using an algorithm to detect cognitive effort in real time, future assistance devices could warn drivers or overcome their mistakes when they no longer control driving activity because of a cognitive effort.


  • Heart Rate Change
  • Cognitive Effort
  • Driving
  • Evoked Cardiac Response
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