Back in the days of black-and-white newsreels, an inventor came up with a bell on a collar that rang whenever a motorist wearing it nodded off. Since this is the 21st century, Volvo is developing a high-tech version of this gadget. It uses face recognition technology to let a car know when the driver is tired or inattentive, so appropriate action can be taken.
In the past few years, assisted driving technology has moved out of the laboratory and into the showroom. There are cars now that can help you park, keep you from making dangerous lane changes, and even apply the brakes in an emergency. However, all these aids are just that; aids. They operate on the assumption that the driver is awake and alert. Even the most advanced systems rely on the driver being able to take over the controls at some point, so how is the car to know that the person behind the wheel isn't taking a nap?
Instead of a bell that rings when the sleepy driver's chin hits it, Volvo's approach relies on sensors installed in the dashboard. Called Driver State Estimation, this consists of small LED lamps that shine invisible infrared light on the driver's face. Sensors pick up the reflected light, and the system uses face recognition technology to determine if the driver is awake and alert by measuring such factors as how wide open the eyes are, along with the position and angle of the head.
Based on this, the car can take appropriate action using driver assist functions, such as Lane Keeping Aid, collision warning with full auto brake, and Adaptive Cruise Control with Queue Assist to keep the vehicle from straying into danger or to send the driver a wake-up alert.
“Since the car is able to detect if a driver is not paying attention, safety systems can be adapted more effectively. For example, the car's support systems can be activated later on if the driver is focused, and earlier if the driver’s attention is directed elsewhere,” says Per Landfors, engineer at Volvo Cars and project leader for driver support functions.
Volvo also sees this face recognition technology as a way to unobtrusively personalize the car by letting it automatically recognize the driver and adjust the seat and cockpit settings, as well as using face tracking to adjust interior and exterior lighting based on which way the driver is looking.
“This could be done by the sensor measuring between different points on the face to identify the driver, for example. At the same time, however, it is essential to remember than the car doesn’t save any pictures and nor does it have a driver surveillance function,” says Landfors.
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