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2014 Motor Trend's Best Driver's Car: How We Test

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 9/22/2014 Kim Reynolds

Randy Franklin Pobst pops open the driver's door, pulls off his helmet, and starts looking for who's holding the digital voice recorder. He's eager to download his subjective impressions. But while there's nobody better at describing what it's like "out there," it's still a recollection. An after-the-fact mental reconstruction, inevitably pockmarked with missing details when some greater urgency interrupts his brain's Record button.

Research

But what would it be like to be behind those black-framed glasses -- in real time -- as Randy threshold-brakes at the top of the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca course and tilts the steering wheel left for the famous five-story Corkscrew drop? What are his hands doing? How hard is he working? What is he feeling as it happens? To get a better idea, we surrounded Randy with some data-gathering tech focused on neither the car nor the driver, but the interplay of the two.

For starters, a GoPro camera was strapped to Randy's chest, allowing us to later measure each car's steering wheel motions. There's a field of analysis called "workload" that quantifies how difficult it is to perform certain tasks, such as driving a car. And heart rate, which is sensitive to both psychological and physical stress, is a great measure of it. A twist here, though, is that lapping introduces some added physical work beyond just operating the controls -- bracing yourself in a lousy seat while resisting high g's. We also noticed a pattern in our data: Randy's heart rate was greatest exiting the Corkscrew and through Turns 9 and 10, where there's lots of g. It lowered when he was heading up the hill to the Corkscrew and accelerating along the pit straight. That's where I'd be scared to death.

2014 Motor Trend Best Drivers Car© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Motor Trend Best Drivers Car When our video team first suction-cupped a second GoPro camera onto the inside of the windshield, its lens aimed directly backward into Randy's face, I doubted it would work. "Nah, that'll be OK," Randy countered. "I'm a road racer. I'm rarely looking straight ahead anyway!" Our new Race-Face Cam was a go.

Remember the Obama-Romney debates and those squiggly lines beneath their headshots exposing the candidate's real feelings as each one spoke? That was an evolving breed of software analysis that detects the motions of groups of facial muscles and associates them with what's really going on in a person's head.

Those real-time presidential debate graphs were generated by some pretty smart automated software analysis. However, Randy's helmet and glinting glasses stumped the software of two of its leading purveyors, so we turned to Dr. Alberto Cruz of the Center for Research in Intelligent Systems at University of California, Riverside, who, though expert in those automated techniques, too, manually deconstructed the videos, giving us the insights we were after.

Actually, manual analysis like this is still the gold standard for this work, and Dr. Cruz's process was to first immerse himself in Randy's range of expressions, then randomize the names of each car's face-cam file, and finally analyze each one three times, averaging the results you see here.

2014 Motor Trend Best Drivers Car© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Motor Trend Best Drivers Car The first of our two basic results is Randy's "focus" (or "activation") while driving each car. (Note that high focus is agnostic to whether he was reacting to fun or fear; alternately, low focus might simply be that the car's easy to drive). The second graph shows how much he "likes" or "dislikes" what's happening (called "valence"). Often, these are predominately negative -- driving at the limit isn't as gleeful while it's happening.

How is all this figured out? We'll get into this more at MotorTrend.com, but emotions can be consistently identified by specific facial expressions. For instance, when Randy's upset he'll squint his eyes with a slight frown. Wide-open eyes and lips closed (but not pursed) indicates alarm. Tenseness is a forward-tilted head and furrowed brow. And excited -- not surprisingly -- is a smile with raised cheek muscles, called a Duchene smile. The accompanying radar plots isolate the importance of eight significant emotions, all of them being a subset of those more general "interest" and "positive/negative" graphs.

Which Best Driver's competitors excelled at our Race-Face Cam test?

2014 Motor Trend Best Drivers Car© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Motor Trend Best Drivers Car

2014 Motor Trend Best Drivers Car© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Motor Trend Best Drivers Car

Driver Focus

How interesting or absorbing is each car to hot lap? Randy’s expressions say a lot. Here, 100 percent represents total focus; 0 percent, none. The blue band represents how widely it varied over his lap.

Dislike/Like

Randy’s expressions also indicated how much he “liked” or “disliked” the experience. (Their high and low variation is in blue).

Total Steering Motion

How much steering work was needed? This graph shows how many total degrees of steering motion Randy required (adding both left and right directions). A big number indicates lots of corrections.

Heart Rate, BPM

Both physical work and psychological stress raise a driver’s heart rate. Randy’s range is shown in blue.



2014 Motor Trend Best Drivers Car© Provided by MotorTrend 2014 Motor Trend Best Drivers Car
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