Some Cars Can Tell If You’re Sleepy

The Toronto Star

March 20, 2017

New detection systems alert drivers to signs of drowsiness, warning before you feel tired

It's something that many of us have experienced while driving, though we may not like to admit it.

It's called microsleep, a brief state of drowsy unconsciousness that can happen even if your eyes remain open.

Drowsy driving kills. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy driving caused 824 deaths in the U.S. in 2015, the last year for which figures are available.

Several manufacturers, including Audi, Mercedes and Volvo, currently offer drowsiness detection systems that monitor a vehicle's movements, such as steering-wheel angle, lane deviation, time driven and road conditions.

When drowsiness is detected, drivers are typically warned with a sound and the appearance of a coffee cup icon.

But manufacturers and automobile suppliers are now working on advanced technological solutions that go beyond visions of coffee cups.

To find out if drowsiness can be detected even earlier, Plessey Semiconductors has developed sensors, to be placed in a seat, that monitor changes in heart rate.

Algorithms developed by the company indicate when breathing changes to patterns that are typical of someone who is sleeping, giving a warning before someone actually feels tired.

"We could see this in a vehicle in five years," said Keith Strickland, chief technology officer of the company, which is based in Plymouth, England.

Bosch, a German supplier of technology to many automotive companies, is developing a camera-based system that will monitor head and eye movements, as well as body posture, heart rate and body temperature.

When such a system is used in vehicles that allow for limited autonomous driving, the vehicle could take over once drowsiness is detected - either coming to an emergency stop or pulling itself off to the side of the road, said Kay Stepper, Bosch's head of driver assistance and automated driving.

In France, Valeo, another supplier of automotive technology, is developing an infrared camera system that will monitor children in the rear seat as well as the driver's shoulder, neck and head movements, looking for deviations from the norm.

Checking body temperature and even how the driver is dressed, the system will also be able to customize the interior temperature for each driver, said Guillaume Devauchelle, the company's innovation director.

Nvidia, chip supplier to Audi, Mercedes, Tesla and others, is developing the Co-Pilot, an artificial-intelligence tool that can learn the behaviors of individual drivers and determine when they are operating outside their norms.

The system will eventually learn a driver's standard posture, head position, eye blink rate, facial expression and steering style, among other indexes. Based on a vehicle's capabilities, the driver will be warned or automatically driven to a safe spot when conditions warrant.

Until vehicles can drive themselves, it will be up to drivers to pull over once they feel drowsy.

But drivers tend to make excuses, believing there is no danger because they are just a few minutes from home, or they are not really as tired as they may feel.

"We're a nation of tired drivers. People talk about sleep deprivation as if it's a badge of honor," said Deborah Hersman, the head of the National Safety Council and the former chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board. "As a society we have to realize that drowsy driving is really dangerous."

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