December 12, 2007 Alcohol and speed are rightfully targeted as major causes of road accidents, but another deadly factor - falling asleep at the wheel - is not always given the profile it deserves in developing strategies to combat the road toll. In an effort to make driving safer for both the occupants of the vehicle and their fellow road users, Mercedes-Benz is working on a system that recognizes tiredness-related changes in personal driving style and warns the driver that it's time to take a break when these changes are detected. Now entering the final stages of development and expected to go into series production in 2009, the Attention Assist system constantly monitors typical driving patterns to establish an individual profile and, taking into account factors like the time of day, the duration of the trip and steering behavior, makes a decision on whether the driver is becoming tired when there is deviation from this saved data.
The development of the system began with a series of experiments in the driving simulator in Berlin followed by motorway trials involving 420 test people and more than 500,000 kilometers of road travel. Further long-term tests are to be conducted different climate zones, city traffic, poor roads and on long-distance trips.
The system records the angle of the steering wheel, speed, acceleration, the use of indicators and pedals, as well as external factors such as a side wind or an uneven road surface. If changes occur within the established parameters of the individual's driving behavior (with steering behavior having proved a particularly telling indicator according to Mercedes) a warning sounds and an alert symbol appears in the instrument cluster so the driver knows it's time for a break.
Aside from the obvious lack of a good night’s sleep, the program has identified monotony caused by unchanging road conditions on long trips and a lack of other traffic on the road, particularly in darkness, as a key factor in driver fatigue. Crucially it has also been found that drivers don't recognize tiredness early enough as it gradually creeps up, diminishing awareness and reaction times, meaning that an objective observer as provided by the Attention Assist system offers an important method of early intervention.
Mercedes makes the point that although official statistics cite tiredness as the reason behind around one percent of all serious traffic accidents, the real impact of falling asleep at the wheel is likely to be much higher because of the difficulty in proving that tiredness is a contributing factor (as opposed to speed, alcohol or drugs which can be established as factors through testing and forensic examination of a crash scene). It's argued that tiredness is probably responsible for a higher proportion of serious traffic accidents than alcohol, but no matter what the percentages say, most drivers would agree that any system that can effectively address the issue is likely to save lives.
Other systems such as Eyealert have been on the market for a couple of years but Mercedes new system is unique as the first technology to use continual driver observation and establish and analyze typical behavior patterns to combat the problem.