Continental watches eyeballs to limit distraction
CHICAGO -- With motorists using more voice commands to control infotainment systems, what's next to minimize driver distraction?
Continental AG is developing a system -- dubbed the Driver Focus Vehicle -- that monitors the driver's eye movements, then warns if the driver is looking away from the road under hazardous conditions.
Cockpit sensors that monitor driver attentiveness are not new. Toyota and Mercedes, for instance, use such systems to detect driver fatigue. Continental's innovation is a system of radar, video cameras and a computer processor that can determine whether it's hazardous for the motorist to look away.
For example, if the vehicle is going 50 mph on an empty, straight stretch of highway -- and if the motorist isn't driving erratically -- the system doesn't warn the motorist while he is eyeing a barn along the roadside.
But if the vehicle is turning left in heavy traffic -- or if a truck ahead suddenly brakes -- the system warns the motorist to pay attention.
That warning could be a vibrating seat, a tone or what Continental engineers call "the halo" -- an LED light strip that rings the cockpit just below the windows. The LED strip might flash red, or it could form an arrow of light that directs the motorist's attention to trouble ahead.
To find out which type of warning works best, Continental will hold consumer clinics this spring in its technical center in Auburn Hills, Mich.
The idea is to minimize "false positives" -- that is, warnings even if the motorist is in no danger, says Christian Schumacher, chief of Continental's North American advanced driver assistance systems. "We see this happen with lane departure warning systems," he said. "If people get annoyed, the warning has no value. They'll turn it off."
Continental has no development contracts, "but we have a lot of interest from the automakers," Schumacher said.
For demonstration purposes, the German supplier installed the technology in a Cadillac XTS. The system's processor monitors road conditions by assessing traffic information from a battery of sensors.
The XTS comes with a long-range radar and two short-range radars in the grille, plus a video camera on the windshield in front of the rearview mirror. The XTS also has a rear-facing camera and radar unit.
All these sensors are stock. The only new equipment required is an infrared camera mounted behind the steering wheel, plus the LED light strip around the cockpit and the software that assesses road conditions.
Because most luxury cars have the necessary sensors, Continental says it can design the system without a big investment in hardware. Good video cameras, for instance, are available for about $100.
When might such technology reach the cockpit? Schumacher says it could happen within the next three years or so -- in other words, in the next generation of vehicles.
The biggest hurdle is to figure out which alerts will get motorists to take proper action, and which alerts will simply confuse them. "We have some ideas, but we don't have the answers yet," Schumacher said. "That's why we're going to have a clinic."
You can reach David Sedgwick at firstname.lastname@example.org.