Automotive suppliers at all levels are well aware that voice recognition is expected to play a big role in combating driver distraction.
What's not widely known, however, is that the scope of hardware and software needed to deal with driver distraction in the next decade will go well beyond voice recognition systems and Bluetooth-enabled phones. Pressure sensors, infrared detectors, photo diodes, dedicated microprocessors, encoders, cameras, lasers, radar and pattern recognition software are also expected to play key roles.
At the recent Convergence 2002 automotive electronics industry conference here, Chrysler Group engineers teamed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory to demonstrate how sensors will battle driver distraction problems. Their work is based on a simple premise: that 80-90% of accidents can be avoided if a driver is allowed to focus on the important tasks at hand.
The Chrysler 300M IT (so named for the cooperative effort with the university) demonstrates potential solutions by employing sensors that "watch" the driver's eyes, hands, and feet, and then combine that information with data on the state of the car, the road, and the surrounding traffic. "We want to know what the driver is looking at, where he has his hands and feet, and what he is doing while he is driving," says Lars Wagner, an MIT Media Lab graduate student who developed the decision-making software algorithms for the vehicle.
To find out what the driver is doing, developers of the system placed pressure sensors around the rim of the steering wheel, as well as in the driver's seat and arm rest, on the gear-shift knob, and even in the cupholder. They also employed sensors on the instrument panel and placed cameras above the dash to track the driver's concentration by focusing on eye movement.
The engineers combined such "driver activity" information with data from a global positioning system (GPS) unit in the trunk, so that the system can discern whether the driver is in a high-traffic area, and then have the software reach a conclusion on the driver's level of stress.
"Knowing" the driver's level of stress, the system can then suppress phone calls or extraneous information, if necessary. "The idea is to keep the driver focused," Wagner says. "If he comes to a busy intersection, he doesn't want to know that his windshield washer fluid is low."
Similarly, Wagner says that drivers don't want to be distracted by phone calls while accelerating onto an entrance ramp or exiting from an urban expressway. "At certain times, anything that could distract the driver will be shut down for as long as 15 to 20 seconds," he says.
Wagner says that cell phone makers, such as Motorola, are involved in the effort because they want to help determine when cell phones should and shouldn't be used inside vehicles.
Given the fact that 14 states now have driver distraction laws on the books aimed at cell phone use, and more are sure to follow, Wagner expects many of the 300M IT's concepts to be embraced by automakers. "This doesn't require a lot of computing power," he says. "So we expect to see these concepts get adopted in future vehicles."
For more information about sensor integration from MIT Media Lab, enter 540 at www.designnews.com/info.