Volvo Cars is taking a decisive new step towards safer progress on the roads. Following on its studies into the way in which tired drivers operate behind the wheel, Volvo developed Driver Alert – a world-first innovation that registers the car’s progress on the road and alerts the driver before he or she falls asleep. The system, for which a patent has been applied, aims at helping drivers make the right decision, not at taking over the actual driving.
Driver fatigue is a major traffic-safety problem the world over. According to the American NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), about 100,000 accidents are caused every year on American highways by drivers who fall asleep at the wheel. About 1,500 result in fatalities and a massive 71,000 lead to physical injuries. In Europe too the situation is very similar. The German Insurance Association – GDV (Gesamtverband der Deutschen Versicherungswirtschaft e.V.) – estimates that about 25 percent of all fatal accidents on German motorways are caused by tiredness.
Statistics show that Volvo’s Driver Alert is an important innovation. It is primarily intended for situations where the risk of falling asleep is the greatest and where an accident would have severe consequences. For example a straight, smooth road that lulls the driver into a sense of relaxation and where the risk of speeding is higher. The system steps in at speeds above 65 km/h and then remains active as long as the car’s speed does not drop below 60 km/h.
Registers what’s happening on the road
Driver Alert monitors the car’s movements and assesses whether the vehicle is being driven in a controlled or uncontrolled way. This method is unique among vehicle manufacturers and is very dependable.
“We have chosen to monitor the car’s progress on the road instead of steering wheel input or the driver’s eye movements,” explains Dr Wolfgang Birk, project manager in charge of Driver Alert at Volvo Cars. “This gives us a more reliable indication if something is likely to go wrong, allowing the system time to alert the driver before it is too late. We do not monitor human behaviour – which varies from one person to another – but instead the effect of that behaviour. That is why there is less of a risk of false alarms.”
The system also warns if the driver loses concentration for some reason other than tiredness. The system can detect if the driver is focusing too much on the navigation system, audio system or children in the car, issuing an alert before control over the car is lost.
Text messages and audible signals warn before anything happens
From the technical viewpoint, Driver Alert consists of a camera, a number of sensors and a processor. The camera, which is installed between the windscreen and the interior rear-view mirror, continuously measures the distance between the car and the markings on the road surface. The sensors register the car’s movements. The processor stores the information and calculates whether the driver risks losing control over the car. If the risk is assessed as high, the driver is alerted via an audible signal. In addition, a text message appears in the car’s information display.
What is more, the driver can retrieve information about his driving from the car’s trip computer. The starting-point is five illuminated stars. The less consistent the driving, the more stars go out.
“Driver Alert should not be confused with Lane Departure Warning, which alerts the driver when a lane marker is passed,” says Dr Wolfgang Birk. Driver Alert focuses on the way the car is being driven and provides a warning if the car is being driven in an uncontrolled way. One crucial difference between the systems is that Driver Alert responds without any line having to be crossed.
Driver Alert has been tested both in cars and in simulators, with excellent results and very high dependability.
“During our tests, the system never once missed a driver who was falling asleep at the wheel,” says Dr Wolfgang Birk. “Nonetheless, we will continue to test and fine-tune the system until Driver Alert is offered to Volvo’s customers. We expect it to be available within two years.”