Feeling Sleepy? Your Next Car Will Wake You Up, Or Pull Over And Stop If You Don’t Respond

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Our vehicles are getting smarter. New safety systems will know when you are no longer responding and help keep you safe.

As active safety systems spread rapidly through the automotive landscape, the list of things our vehicles can do to keep us safe continues to grow longer. Almost every new car sold today can already tell you if that lane change is a bad idea, help keep you centered in your lane, stop your car faster than you can in many emergencies, and will tell you if a car is approaching out of your line of sight as you back up. The next step in the evolution of automatic safety systems will be driver monitoring to detect sleepy or unresponsive drivers and a plan of action if the vehicle thinks you are no longer responsive.

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Affordable brands like Honda, Subaru, and Ford now offer systems that will detect if you are getting drowsy, or acting in a manner that indicates you are not being attentive to driving. These systems are not overly sensitive. We’ve tested both Subaru and Ford models for weeks at a time that had the technology and never had them come to life. However, on one early morning drive, our Ford vehicle did pop up a warning that it thought we were acting sleepy – and we were. It suggested coffee.

Subaru’s DriverFocus system keeps an eye on your eyes. Using infrared sensors and facial recognition software, the system can detect if you take your eyes off the road for more than three seconds. That may not sound like a long time, but a car on the highway can travel the length of a football field in three seconds.  If the Subaru system detects you are not paying attention, it beeps at the driver. If the driver ignores the warnings, the Subaru system will slow the car to a stop.

Nissan’s ProPilot Assist technology works differently, but it can detect if you are not steering the car. When in use, ProPilot Assist can help steer your car on the highway so that it stays centered in the lane. The Nissan system will also follow a car ahead of you and speed up and slow down as it does. However, if you don’t keep your hands on the steering wheel, it will warn you to. Ignore the warnings and ProPilot assist assumes you are unresponsive and will slow the car to a stop.

The Society Of Automotive Engineers (S.A.E.) has developed standards for such systems. The ProPilot Assist system falls into the Level 2 category. S.A.E.’s idea is that eventually all cars will have some level of autonomous driving, and the six levels defined by SAE will help drivers know what they are buying or driving. So far, automakers have preferred to use their own marketing lingo.

Mercedes-Benz calls its driver monitoring system Active Emergency Stop Assist. Mercedes says that its system detects when the driver is no longer actively driving the vehicle. If there is no steering wheel movement over a set period, the system beeps and flashes a warning for the driver to hold the steering wheel. If the driver fails to respond after multiple prompts by the steering, accelerating, or braking, the car will slow to a stop. The car will then put on the hazard lights and use the Mercedes telematics system to call first responders.

The National Highway Traffic Administration estimates that about 800 people per year are killed due to drowsy driving. These systems will help to reduce that number.