Volvo researching sensors that can tell when a driver is distracted

One of the major factors in car crashes is driver inattention. It can be deadly to ignore what’s happening outside the windshield, whether because of fatigue, daydreaming, or looking at the stereo or a phone.

Several automakers are working on solutions to the problem, including Volvo, which is researching sensors that watch the driver. By monitoring such things as where the driver is looking, head position and angle, and how open the eyes are, the system can recognize inattention and take steps to ensure safety.

“If you know that a driver is distracted, you can activate features such as a forward collision warning,” says Per Landfors, project leader for drive support functions at Volvo Cars in Sweden. “This is still in the experimental stage. The sensors aren’t much different (from existing ones), but what’s new is how they’re connected to the car, and how the car adapts to you.”

The technology uses a sensor that’s mounted on the dash in front of the driver. It uses infrared light, emitted by small LEDs, to illuminate the driver to be visible to the sensor. People can’t see infrared, so the driver doesn’t notice it.

The sensor works like a camera and takes pictures, but doesn’t store them. Instead, it analyzes the information in the picture, discards it, and then repeats the process, several times a second. “The car doesn’t save any pictures, nor does it have a driver surveillance function,” Landfors says.

If the sensor realizes that a driver isn’t paying attention, it can activate some of the car’s safety functions, depending on what it detects. For a sleepy driver, something like a quick brake pulse could wake him up. If the driver is distracted, systems that warn about imminent collisions, or that can stop the car completely if it’s about to hit something, can be adjusted to intervene much sooner than they normally would. “If you’re totally aware of what’s going on, these can intervene a little bit later,” Landfors says. “You only get the warning when you need it.”

The system also has the potential to enhance driving for an alert operator. For example, if the system detects that the driver is looking at something on the road, it could aim the headlights toward it for better visibility.

Although the current system under development doesn’t save or upload photos, Landfors says that at some time in the future, it is possible that the sensor could take a picture of the driver following a crash and forward it to emergency personnel, who would know in advance what type of trauma care will be necessary.

Coming soon?

Volvo expects that the recognition system will be available in cars by 2020, but possibly sooner than that.

  • Current Volvo cars can detect a drowsy driver, but this system can differentiate between drowsiness and inattention.

  • Such systems may be a key to self-driving cars, which will need to know if a driver is paying attention and can take over the task.

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