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Snooze Alarm

Suppliers wake up to the dangers of drowsy drivers

March 6, 2000

Automotive News

By Bill Chapin

Stephen Cole of Siler City, N.C., was consistently getting only four hours of sleep per night. His daily schedule included staying out late and waking up at 4:30 a.m. for a 12-hour job shift.

After two months, his schedule caught up with him.

While driving home from work one day in December 1998, at a spot where the road narrows north of Pittsboro, N.C., he fell asleep at the wheel. His Toyota Camry crossed the median, drove over a cliff, flipped in midair and smashed into a tree.

Cole’s experience is typical of many drowsy driving accidents with one exception: he walked away from it. Drowsy driving causes at least 40,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths in the United States every year, according to a 1998 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This is most likely an underestimate because, unlike alcohol, there is no lab test to determine if sleep levels played a role in an accident.

As the industry strives to make its products safer, many automotive suppliers are developing technology to prevent this type of accident. These innovations are radical, technically sophisticated and should begin appearing on vehicles in a few months.

The majority of systems in development are tracking devices that use cameras to detect lane markers. One of these products that will hit the market soon is called Autovue, developed by Odetics ITS. It will be available as an option on Mercedes trucks in Europe early this summer, according to Francis Memole, vice president of vehicle sensors for the Anaheim, Calif.-based Odetics.

Freightliner announced in November that is will offer the Odetics system on its Century Class S/T, Argosy and Columbia trucks starting the second quarter of 2000.

Autovue consists of a complete image processing system mounted on the dashboard. Using images from a small video camera, the system looks for edges where the pixels become significantly brighter. It then compares this data to computer algorithms and identifies the lane markers.

Autovue generates a rumble strip-like sound if the vehicle strays outside the lane markers. In order to prevent false alarms, the warning is disabled if the turn signal is activated or if the vehicle is below a certain speed, which is set by the OEM at the factory.

Similar systems are not far behind. SafeTRAC from AssistWare Technology is currently in the prototype stage. The system was developed jointly with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

SafeTRAC relies on an algorithm that analyzes weaving within the lane. Based on this, it gives a drowsiness score on an LED display and an audible warning if the score is too low.

“It’s more of a warning that you may be getting tired and may want to take a break,” said Todd Jochem, vice president of AssistWare.

AssistWare has research and development contracts with five North American truck manufactures and has been discussing non-commercial applications with GM, Ford, Toyota and Volvo, Jochem said. AssistWare expects SafeTRAC to be widely available this year.

The industry is still sorting out what type of sensor technology to use to monitor lane weaving. Some developers are using so-called CMOS chips. SafeTRAC is unique in using CCD video technology rather than CMOS. CMOS, or Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor, is a newer and less-expensive alternative. But, said Jochem “it can’t ‘see’ as well at night, which is obviously very important in a drowsy driver system.”

Delphi Delco Electronics Systems is one of the companies using CMOS cameras. Hyan Yen, who is in charge of Delphi’s lane departure warning system, said he expects that it will eventually be able to handle a wider variety of lighting conditions. He said Delphi’s system is currently being evaluated by users, but there are no contracts with automakers.

Eaton also has a lane tracking device in concept development that could be offered as an option with its VORAD collision warning system as early as 2001. According to Allen Coloske, a business analyst at Eaton, the company will carefully observe how the trucking industry reacts to the Odetics system.

Other suppliers, rather than monitoring the road, are focusing on the driver.

Last summer TRW Inc. signed an agreement with Biosys AB, a medical technology company based in Goteborg, Sweden. The supplier plans to develop an automotive application for a patented Biosys drowsiness detection system.

According to Udo Nenning, marketing director of TRW electronics in Europe, the product will involve sensors located in the driver’s seat that measure heart rate and breathing rhythms. However, he said, measuring drowsiness in a moving, vibrating car is proving to be much more difficult than in a hospital bed.

“This thing is so critical, you don’t want to have something that works at a 50 percent rate,” Nenning said. “It will take another two years or so before this is ready to be marketed.”

At this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Johnson Controls displayed a 2000 Lincoln SL sedan equipped with a drowsiness detection and alert system.

Using a capacitant sensor developed with Circadian Technologies, a Cambridge, Mass.-based sleep research laboratory, the system looks for “micronod,” tiny head movements associated with extreme drowsiness. The alert system is integrated with a seat massage unit to replicate the feeling of driving over rumble strips.

A few obstacles still block the widespread implementation of these safety features.

"The real problem with all of these is the cost," said Delphi’s Yen.

For instance, Freightliner is offering the lane tracking system as an option for $1995 per unit.

Eaton’s Coloske said anything over $1000 per truck “will probably be a hard sell.”

As for the passenger car market, Delphi spokesman Milton Beach said: “We’ve got an idea of what consumers would pay for something like that, and it’s under $1000. The rollout would start on the luxury cars and then the technology would make its way to the smaller cars.”

Then there are the legal complications.

“There’s liability issues,” said Coloske. “The algorithm has to be robust so it doesn’t give a false alarm or no alarm.”

AssistWare’s Jochem said there are some conditions where the technology just can’t work. “If you’re in a blinding snowstorm where you can’t see, then the system can’t see,” he said. “It’s hard to convey that information to people. In the U.S., the legal environment is such that you have to be careful about how you portray your product.”

Some driver fatigue experts are concerned that devices like these may do more harm than good. They claim alerting devices may encourage drowsy drivers to rely on the devices to keep them awake.

"If all you're enabling them to do is keep driving, it's just making a bad problem worse," said Pat Waller, former director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. "If you're nodding off, you need to get off the road.

Biosys President Olle Magnusson said the TRW/Biosys system, like all safety systems, will "require driver responsibility."

"We can only assist and inform the driver," he said.


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