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Bringing Attention to Distracted Driving

By Christopher A. Sawyer

A survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that motorists who use cell phones while driving are more likely to engage in additional dangerous behaviors such as speeding, driving drowsy, driving without a seatbelt and sending texts or emails. As if that wasn’t enough, the study also showed that 69% of licensed drivers reported talking on a cell phone while driving within the last month despite the fact that 89% of survey participants believe other drivers using cell phones are a threat to their personal safety.

The survey also showed the following behaviors:


Cell phone user

Cell phone non-user




Driving Drowsy



Sending text or e-mail



Driving unbelted



Obviously, the problem is going to get worse before it gets better as drivers, especially the youngest, believe they are capable of multitasking, even when data suggests they are not. This is where in-car technology may help mitigate the problems that arise from driver distraction.

The modern automobile has myriad sensors and safety systems, and more are available the higher up the range you go. But what is missing is a human-machine interface with multiple alert stages to catch, and keep, the driver’s attention when something is about to go wrong. “Right now we have two extremes,” says Tejas Desai, Continental North America’s Head of Interior Electronics Solutions. “We are either always yelling at the driver or doing nothing until it’s almost too late, and braking hard. We have to understand driver intent. I know from the car where he is going and what is happening around the vehicle — good or bad. But I have to know if he is paying attention, and where that attention is focused, to be able to bring him back into the loop.”

Prototype Driver Analyzer camera and lighting system sits on steering column, but would be much smaller and less visible in production.By adding a driver-facing camera with twin low-power LED light sources, Continental is able to find facial curvature, a nose and a jaw line. That is, a face. “When I add this information to what the safety systems are gathering, I get a much more complete picture of what’s happening,” says Zachary Bolton, Project Engineer, Continental North America Algorithm Development. Thus the Driver Analyzer, as this camera and lighting system is called, can deduce the orientation of the driver’s head and where his attention is focused. This is vital for determining whether or not he’s paying attention to what’s going on ahead of the vehicle. Ideally, a warning system will draw the driver’s attention toward the imminent threat in a timely manner, and use alerts appropriate to the situation.

By placing a stripe of LEDs that can broadcast any color around the interior and within the driver’s and passenger’s line of sight, Continental moves a visual notification through the discrete lighting elements in the direction the driver needs to look. “Depending on the threat level and how the OEM has set the alert hierarchy,” says Desai, “you can use this to get the driver to look where he should by, in essence, tapping him on the shoulder. From there you can engage the other warnings (alarms, vibrating seat, etc.) if the threat increases.”

Thus, if you are looking toward the passenger side of the car when a threat ahead is identified, the LEDs on that side of the car flash red and draw your attention forward by sending a pulse of color forward toward the windshield. A light segment not much more than an inch wide races from back to front until you are looking ahead. There a solid segment of red stretching from A-pillar to A-pillar greets you, confirming the problem is to the front. If the driver is late in reacting, the current warning devices are tripped and — if there is still not an adequate response — the vehicle may initiate emergency braking.

It sounds simple. However, the system also has to be forgiving enough that it doesn’t send out false warnings or continual alerts in non-threatening situations. “The last thing you want to do is desensitize the driver to the alert,” says Bolton. Also, it should be able to anticipate troubles by using forward-looking radar to look underneath the cars ahead in order to see what’s happening, and provide an early warning, if necessary. If, for example, the cars ahead have limited traction, the light strip below the windshield would flash yellow as an indicator of why the engine management system has reduced power.

It also sounds expensive. A car like Cadillac’s XTS, to which Continental fitted its prototype system, charges approximately $3,300 for its Enhanced Safety System, which includes multiple radar units in front and back, camera units, and more. However, lower priced vehicles also can make use of this technology by using less expensive technologies. Nissan’s Maxima already uses the rear-facing camera to replace radar units in its blind spot detection system, and a Lidar unit and forward-facing camera should be capable of replacing front radars, but without the same resolution and bandwidth. All that’s necessary is the software to tie them together with the information from the Driver Analyzer camera, and the LED warning/reconfigurable ambient lighting strip. It still won’t be cheap, but with the European and American NCAP rating agencies planning to add or subtract stars from their safety ratings if vehicles don’t have collision avoidance technologies, this idea may become commonplace faster than expected. And with the increase in texting/phoning and driving, it may help reduce injuries and fatalities that otherwise might be inevitable.

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