Accidents Waiting to Happen

Falling asleep at the wheel is no laughing matter. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), approximately 100,000 collisions are caused every year on U.S. highways by drivers who fall asleep. Of that number, 1,500 of the accidents result in fatalities and 71,000 cause physical injuries.  Clearly driver fatigue is a major safety problem so Volvo Car Corporation has launched an extensive initiative to deal with the problem.  The result of that effort is the new Volvo Driver Alert system, a decisive step in active safety.
The technology is designed to monitor a vehicle's progress on the road and alert the driver if it detects signs of fatigue or distraction. The system does not take control of the vehicle, but instead helps drivers make the right decision. Volvo Cars intends to patent the Driver Alert technology and make the system available in Volvo vehicles within two years.

Instead of tracking lane markers or viewing the driver's eyeballs, Driver Alert monitors the vehicle's movement to determine if the vehicle is being driven in a controlled way. This method is unique among vehicle manufacturers, and it is designed to be reliable in a variety of circumstances.

"We have chosen to monitor the vehicles progress on the road instead of steering wheel input or the driver's eye movements," said Dr. Wolfgang Birk, project manager for Driver Alert at Volvo Cars. "This gives us a more reliable indication if something is likely to go wrong, allowing the system time to alert the driver before it is too late. We do not monitor human behavior, which varies from one person to another, but instead the system monitors the effect of that behavior. That is why there is less of a risk for false alarms."

(We know of some human behavior that triggers a lot of alarms, but that's another story.)

The Driver Alert system consists of a camera, a number of sensors and a processor. The camera, which is installed between the windscreen and the rear-view mirror, continuously measures the distance between the vehicle and the markings on the surface of the road. The sensors register the vehicle movements (like weaving within or outside the lane) while the processor stores the information and calculates whether the driver is at risk. If the risk is assessed as high, the driver is alerted via an audible signal and a text message appears in the vehicle's information display.

The system also warns if the driver loses concentration for a reason other than fatigue. The system can detect if the driver is focusing too much on the navigation or audio systems or children in the vehicle, issuing an audible and visual alert before control is lost.  But it cannot spank the children.  After all, it's Swedish.

What's more, the driver can retrieve a safety rating about their driving style, based on consistency of performance. Included in the vehicle's trip computer, a display will provide the driver a rating, based on five stars. The less consistent the driving, the fewer stars illuminate.

"Driver Alert should not be confused with a system that alerts the driver if a lane marker is breached without activating a turn signal," Birk said. "Driver Alert monitors the way the vehicle is being driven and alerts the driver to their actions, rather than the vehicle's position relative to a lane marker. In fact, Driver Alert will respond without the vehicle even crossing a lane marker."

The company's goal was to ensure the system would only activate where the risk of falling asleep is the greatest and where a collision would have severe consequences. For example, a straight, smooth road has the potential to lull a driver into a deep sleep not unlike a meeting with an estate planner. The system is activated at speeds above 40 mph and remains active until speeds fall below approximately 37 mph.

"During our tests, the system never once missed a driver who was falling asleep at the wheel," said Birk. "Nonetheless, we will continue to test and fine-tune the system until Driver Alert is offered to Volvo customers. We expect it to be available within two years."

Frequently accused of sleepwalking through life, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the human condition and the automobile business from his home in Villeperce, France.