It will be a while before drivers are able to take naps on the freeway. Until then, there is a risk that hidden fatigue could gradually take the pleasure out of driving. Now new EEG sensors in the headrest are supposed to prevent it.
Car drivers have a lot to do, even if they do most of it unconsciously. Underestimating fatigue can have fatal consequences. If drivers suddenly nod off for a moment or fall into a microsleep, they are briefly incapable of reacting, even if their eyes are open. Given typical motorway speeds, that could amount to “flying blind” for more than 100 meters. And the problem is quite common. Being drowsy at the wheel is one of the most frequent causes of serious traffic accidents.
So it comes as little surprise that an entire range of assist systems are available to warn drivers of this danger. According to the ADAC, they start with devices to keep drivers from falling asleep that are worn behind the ear and sound the alarm when the head drops—which it doesn’t recommend.
Sensors that measure steering wheel movements offer more safety. Decades ago, a coffee cup would light up on the instrument panel of Nissan vehicles if the driver stopped making typical minor steering adjustments. In 2010, Bosch introduced a similar warning system as standard equipment in the Volkswagen Passat. The necessary information comes from a steering angle sensor that is part of the electronic stability programs (ESP) that are already in nearly all vehicles.
Daimler’s Attention Assist compiles an individual driver profile at the beginning of each trip that it constantly compares to the driver’s behavior. Blinker and pedal use, steering behavior and external influences such as side wind or an uneven road surface are also included in the computations.
Attention Assist with eye contact
Another group of sleep warning solutions tries to read the emerging danger on the driver’s face. For example, the Eyetracker from Fraunhofer IDMT uses two cameras and infrared lighting to recognize whenever the eyes are closed longer than a second.
Osram Opto Semiconductors also keeps an eye on the eyes with an infrared light-emitting diode (IR-LED). Combined with a CMOS camera, it monitors the driver day and night at a wavelength of 850 nanometers without being noticed.
Monitoring the skin and the brain
Anti-sleep warning devices such as the one from StopSleep monitors the electrical conductivity of the skin, which mirrors brain activity, to indicate when the driver is fatigued. However, contact-free neuro-biomonitors in the headrest get even closer to the brain.
In keeping with the Freer Logic slogan “Yes. We can read your mind,” electroencephalography (EEG) sensors measure the driver’s brainwaves and sound the alarm if his attention is diminished. They can supposedly recognize brainwaves without any contact whatsoever, even at a distance of 15 centimeters. One significant technical challenge concerns the weakness of the brainwaves and all the sources of electrical interference in an automobile. After all, the Faraday cage ensures that people inside the vehicle are not disturbed by anything outside.
An attention assist is definite a sensible passenger. But which one provides the greatest safety depends on a number of factors. Do you feel that having them makes sense, and have they possibly already prevented something serious from happening? Join the discussion!