After six months of development, Ford Motor Co. is ready for serious experiments on driver distraction on a virtual highway in its VIRTEXX (VIRtual Test Track EXperiment) simulation dome.

Data from the first tests soon will be available to develop in-house standards by year-end. It will be used to help the carmaker understand what products and services it should offer in its vehicles to promote safety and minimize driver-distraction. It likely will also contribute to industry standards guiding future telematics development.

Most telematics have been developed without driver-distraction data, says Richard Parry-Jones, group vice president-global product development and chief technical officer.

There aren't many places where you can study driver distraction in-depth, says VIRTEXX Technical Specialist Jeff Greenberg.

Inside the 24-foot diameter dome is a modified Taurus — no powertrain, fuel tanks or air bags — but loaded with a lot of electronics. While drivers attempt to complete about 40 tasks in increasingly difficult traffic situations, data on their performance, eye movements and even mental state are monitored.

The simulator offers a degree of control and repeatability not afforded in real driving situations, says Mr. Greenberg.

Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. show driver distraction contributes to as many as 30% of all crashes, and there is accelerating national concern about the use of cellular telephones while driving.

And a new study by researchers at the University of Utah concludes talking on cell phones while driving affects performance regardless of whether the phone is hand-held or hands-free.