Is it now safer for drivers to ‘wear their hearts on their sleeves’?

The next revolution in driver safety might not have anything to do with technology that's built into the car. Rather, it could have more to do with smart devices worn by the driver.

Toyota is currently researching wearable technology at its Collaborative Safety Research Center. The automaker is interested in how wearables monitor certain vitals, including the driver's heart rate.

"What we are interested in is [letting] the user wear whatever they want," said Pujitha Gunaratne, senior scientist at the centre. "They have different preferences, they have different needs. As long as you have a wearable, if that is linked with your cell phone or some kind of system, that's good enough because it transmits your vitals."

Toyota is particularly interested in headbands that can measure the wearer's brain waves using an electroencephalogram (EEG) test.

Distracted driving

Wearables could be helpful in preventing tired or distracted drivers from getting into an accident, especially as vehicles become more autonomous.

For example, suppose that a driver allows his or her semi-autonomous vehicle to take over when it hits the freeway. Later on, the vehicle needs to be manually controlled but the driver has fallen asleep. A wearable device could pick up on this and send a signal to the driver's phone, which would immediately notify the vehicle. The vehicle could then respond with some audible cues to wake the driver.

"That's a very good example," said Gunaratne, adding that the user's state of mind is another area of interest. "You may be still awake but you may be distracted or heavily into your cell phone and you're not paying attention to what's going on."

Toyota is trying to work out if a wearable can differentiate between these elements and properly determine if, or when, a driver is not at full capacity.

"That is one of the things we need to work on to develop the algorithms on distinguishing [the driver's] state," said Gunaratne.

That may more complex than it seems. A driver could talk on the phone and remain focused, or put the phone down and become completely distracted.

"How do you distinguish between just talking and [not] paying attention?" Gunaratne questioned. "Those types of things, definitely, that is part of the research that we are focusing."

Beyond safety

Motti Kushnir, CEO of Infinity AR, imagines a future where augmented reality (AR) glasses could improve the overall driving experience.

"Let's say I'm driving off-road, one of the big challenges is how do I see what happens beneath my car?" said Kushnir, whose company developed a platform for augmented reality. "What is the situation, what is the landscape? If I'm looking down and there are cameras on the side of the car, I can see [through it] as if my vehicle was transparent."

Kushnir said there is also room for augmented reality to assist a driver when a vehicle breaks down. After calling for assistance, the driver could receive step-by-step instructions on how to diagnose, and hopefully fix, the problem.

AR glasses could also assist with eye tracking. "It can understand whether your eyes are getting shutdown, whether you're starting to gaze in the wrong direction, and send an alert for you," Kushnir explained.

Some of these features could be implemented with a heads-up display built into the windshield but that would be extremely expensive.

"I think that's the benefit of glasses; you are wearing something small but it covers your field of view," said Kushnir.

Unexpected interference

If wearables prove to be a useful tool for improving automotive safety, what will it mean for drivers who don't own one of these devices? Are they not as safe as those who do?

"I think the easy answer is, yes," said Joanna Berzowska, head of electronic textiles at OMsignal. "There's [also] the potential for making you more distracted." OMsignal developed a smart shirt that monitors the wearer's heart rate (resting, peak and recovery times) and breathing rate.

"I think if the designers try to integrate too much functionality into it and it becomes like a game, that distracts you from what you should be doing," Berzowska added.

But among all the sales pitches, there’s a word of caution from Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, is "very concerned" that wearables will cause "additional distractions."

"The problem with something on your wrist, it invites you to look down at your wrist and also have something that's closer in your focal field than the dashboard," said Fisher. "I think it runs quite a bit of risk, to tell you the truth. The Apple Watch, in particular, will not display unless you twist your wrist up to your face."

Fisher fears that this will create a "big problem" when the wearer's hands are supposed to be on the steering wheel.

"It invites you to take your hands off the steering wheel in order to actually see what that alert was," he said.


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