New Hope to Cope with Distraction

Life is filled with annoying distractions. But when you're at the wheel of your car, those distractions can kill you. 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 at the wheel. 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 Cars has launched the new Volvo Driver Alert system, a decisive step in active safety that is just about to be introduced in the United States.

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. Another new-to-America system, Lane Departure Warning, alerts the driver if the car crosses the road markings without an obvious reason. Both Lane Departure Warning and Driver Alert Control will be part of the same option package, called Driver Alert System. It will be available in the Volvo S80, V70 and XC70, at virtually the same time as you read this.

"Real life safety is the key to our safety philosophy," said Ingrid Skogsmo, director of the Volvo Cars Safety Centre. "When it comes to preventive safety, we have the same approach as when we develop protective systems. In other words, our research and technical development focus on areas where new technology can create significant results in real-life-traffic."

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 Daniel Levin, project manager for Driver Alert Control 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."

The Driver Alert system consists of a camera, a number of sensors and a processor. The camera, which is installed between the windshield 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. 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. Instead, it monitors the way the vehicle is being driven and alerts the driver to his or her own 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 if other factors warrant it.

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. Severe weather, fog or poorly marked roads may limit the effectiveness of the system, but it is a step forward in giving a driver a chance to rebound from inattention before it turns deadly.

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