Betty Lou McClanahan wears many hats -- one of them a crash helmet. An administrative assistant at the Media Laboratory, she's also a race car driver and an automotive theorist who has published two conference papers, filed two patent applications and received a research grant in the past year.
Ms. McClanahan, who has worked at MIT since 1981, has a keen interest in both race driving and social theory, which steered her towards automobile interface design. For several years, she studied social theory as a special graduate student in MIT's Department of Political Science, focusing on the evolution of objects in our society.
"I like to think about everyday things that people take completely for granted. I think about how these objects came to be, in order to change them for the better," she said. One of the things she thought about was her aging VW Jetta.
She started performance-driving three years ago when her sister bought a new car that came with an advertisement for an advanced course at a driving school. Ms. McClanahan took the course instead of her sister. She spent two days driving new BMWs around a track, learning emergency maneuvers, skid control, cornering and "all about tires," she said. That experience led to subsequent courses in race driving, and now she drives the real thing on a track -- the Formula Dodge race car.
"It goes against our socialization as a women -- the speed, the aggression -- but most of all, making all this noise. The engine is really loud and the tires shriek. We're used to working in offices where we stay clean and quiet," Ms. McClanahan said. "But you have to be physically strong and mentally aggressive to race. I train for it physically. There's no power steering, no power brakes, and on some parts of the course the car's suspension is really bouncing you up and down. But you have to hold the wheel using brute force, yet turn it very precisely," she said in her office at the Media Lab.
She's also aware of the thought processes underlying the physical aspects of driving. "I work for [Professor] Marvin Minsky, and I was strongly influenced by his book, The Society of Mind, which is basically a theory of how the mind works," she said.
Her three interests -- social theory, driving and the mind -- converged one day while she was on the road, and her approach to the automobile changed permanently.
"I said to myself, 'Why do I treat this highly complex piece of machinery as if it was just a toaster?' I started thinking about the way people's minds work when they drive, what processes they go through," she said.
When an e-mail announcement seeking paper submissions for an automotive design conference came her way, she submitted an abstract. It was accepted. That's when she met her research collaborator, Stephen J. Buckley, an electronics and display specialist at the Chrysler Corp. in Michigan, which now sponsors her research at MIT.
Ms. McClanahan's current research projects, administered through the Sloan Automotive Laboratory, may alter the way drivers keep track of their speed and other cars' positions -- on the road and on the track. She and Mr. Buckley are co-inventors of two devices that could allow drivers to check their speed without looking down. Instead, they would glance at the rear-view mirror, where their speed would appear as a digital readout.
One of the devices, the Rear Speed Display, is a digital speedometer located on the back windshield that would be reflected in the mirror. The other is a digital readout located in the mirror itself. Their research suggests that the Rear Speed Display could cut by 50 percent the time it takes drivers to check their speed, keeping drivers' eyes on the road more and improving safety by encouraging use of the rear-view mirror.
"It would be especially useful for older people, whose eyes don't focus fast enough to glance down quickly at the small digits on the speedometer and then back up to the road," explained Ms. McClanahan. The current prototype for the device is an LED display, but Chrysler is working on a new, more advanced version that uses a vacuum fluorescent display. The devices could eventually provide other information to drivers as well, such as RPMs or fuel level.
Ms. McClanahan, who is vice chair for math and science of the governing board of the New England Chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers, is also interested in improving driving safety among MIT students, and she hopes to start a driving course for them. She will work with students beginning this fall as head of the MIT Racing Team, part of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory.
"The MIT racing team had fallen into disrepair, and Professor [John] Heywood encouraged me to take it over. I'm reorganizing the space and designing a program to help teach students about race car design," she said. "I convinced the Skip Barber Racing School to give us two old Formula Ford race cars to use. We'll restore them as a learning experience."
Dr. Heywood, the Sun Jae Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory, serves as the principal investigator on Ms. McClanahan's research grants.
"He's one of the world's great automotive experts -- a top engine theorist. I talked to him first about my ideas and he has since been like a mentor to me. My supervisors in the Media Lab are also very supportive," Ms. McClanahan said. "MIT is just this incredibly educational environment."
She'll be racing at Maroso Track in Florida in December, in a Formula Dodge series sponsored by the Skip Barber Racing School, which she calls "the MIT of driving schools." She trains at Lime Rock track in Connecticut, "where Paul Newman learned to race," she said.
How fast does she drive on the freeway between here and there?
"I keep it under 70," she said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 24, 1997.