Having two ‘drivers’ in a car may never work

Technology to monitor driver awareness on way to autonomy, explored by Eric Volkman.

A classic problem in auto safety is drowsy driving. Nodding off is all well and good while loitering on the couch or curled up in bed; it’s not so good when operating a vehicle. The coming of autonomy promises to eliminate this problem. In the self-driving future, a car’s occupants, after all, won’t be required to do much besides fight boredom but what happens in the run-up to this? Particularly in Level 3 (conditional automation) operation, automobile piloting will consist of human and machine splitting the driver duties. That age is fast approaching – soon we’ll see Audi’s latest A8 on the roads, a car touted as a Level 3 auto, although its features aren’t very extensive.

Thus, drowsy driving now “is a very real potential issue as cars become highly autonomous but still require the driver to take control in certain instances,” says Nick Lloyd, road safety manager for the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. “If this [control] is very infrequent it will present practical difficulties in maintaining driver attention.”

These “practical difficulties” can lead directly to the grave. According to US government safety agency the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2016 drowsy driving was responsible for 803 deaths. A scarier statistic from the Centres For Disease Control and Prevention indicates that roughly one-in-25 drivers admitted to falling asleep while operating a car within the 30 days prior to being surveyed on the topic.

To their credit, manufacturers are attempting to come to grips with this. The most prominent example of this recently is Cadillac’s well-reviewed Super Cruise system – although technically a Level 2 solution, it has some powerful autonomy packed in its brain. The system, which has been placed in the latest edition of the manufacturer’s CT6 luxury sedan, can take over a car’s operation on a great many US highways in which the two roadways are separated by a divider. The use of such a solution obviously requires the driver to retake control in fairly short order once the Caddy gets out of the self-driving zone, or in other cases where human operation might suddenly be required.

“Though it’s a hands-free system, Super Cruise requires the driver to pay attention and [to be] able to take back control at all times,” says Cadillac spokesman JL Lavina. Super Cruise makes sure the operator is attentive. It constantly monitors his or her state of alertness with a solution called, yes, Driver Attention System. This tracks the driver’s head motion – a good predictor of whether he or she is nodding off – and alarms this person if it senses a problem. A light strip located on top of the steering wheel flashes to bring them back to reasonable consciousness. If the head continues to loll, the system will also blast a sound alert and vibrate the driver’s seat to jolt the occupant awake.

Audi is keenly aware of this problem, too. Its Level 3 marquee feature is traffic jam pilot, which allows the craft to steer and accelerate itself in jam-like conditions. Such situations can occur quite abruptly, so it’s crucial for Audi drivers to be alert. Audi says its system “uses a series of safety checkpoints” to guard against this. The first one mentioned is Driver Availability Detection, again a self-explanatory feature. One aspect of this system is its monitoring of the most important human in the vehicle. Audi’s technology “confirms that the driver is active and able to intervene. If not, it will bring the car to a safe stop,” reads the company’s promotional literature on the subject.

Nissan goes the data route with its current solution, Driver Attention Alert. According to the company “using steering angle sensors, DAA monitors steering input patterns to establish a baseline or a ‘snapshot’ of how you were driving. Then, it continuously compares subsequent driving patterns to the most recent snapshot using a statistical analysis of steering corrections.” In other words, it’s almost as if the driver has got a team of tiny statisticians working in their steering column, continuously analysing the behind-the-wheel performance. If the system figures that there’s an attention issue, it’ll sound a fairly loud chime.

These solutions sensibly attack the problem but drowsy driving might be too thorny to solve effectively. After all, no matter the intensity of flashes, sound alarms, and vibrations, humans aren’t machines and can’t necessarily be whipped back into control on time. With that big limitation in mind, some carmakers are considering a bypass road around Level 3, at least, in order to devote their efforts to full autonomy.  Ford is one of those companies; its CTO said it’ll continue to pour its research into system/hardware combinations that eliminate pedals and steering wheels. In other words, solutions that don’t involve human beings at all.

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