Every day across America 10 people die and more than 1,100 are injured because of distracted driving, according to the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT). But these tragedies don’t have to happen.
In an effort to prevent injuries and save lives German auto parts supplier Continental has unveiled an advanced technology prototype at the Chicago Auto Show today.
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Called the “Driver Focus Vehicle” the foundation for this technology is a Cadillac XTS. Continental chose the luxury sedan because they already provide a number of systems used in the car. This made it easier for them to integrate their new experimental technologies.
Beyond its standard array of electronic sensors that enable features like adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning, the Caddy’s interior has been outfitted with an infrared camera that tracks the driver’s eyes and can tell which way they’re looking. Two infrared LEDs provide light in the non-visible spectrum so the camera can function in the dark or under different driving conditions. Zach Bolton, a project engineer at Continental said a standard video camera, one that works in the visible spectrum, would not be as effective because a number of things could throw it off. Driving at night or shadows cast by overhead tree limbs are a couple examples.
The infrared camera may be completely invisible to the human eye, but what’s not is the 360-degree halo of LEDs that encircles the car’s interior. This is the real heart of the Driver Focus Vehicle.
Tracking the motorist’s face, the infrared camera knows if he or she takes their eyes off the road ahead. If they do look away the lighting array can actually be used as a signal to draw their gaze back to where it needs to be.
How does it work? Bolton said it can “send a comet, send a shooting star,” across the LED ring. Think of this blip of light as people doing “the wave” in a crowded stadium. It naturally draws the driver’s eyes back to the road ahead.
The idea is to alert drivers to potential hazards if they’re looking to the side or even at the back seat. When sounding a warning, today’s systems typically beep or flash lights on the dashboard. If the driver is not looking ahead the alarm can go unnoticed. The Driver Focus Vehicle aims to address this problem.
Additionally, that bank of LEDs can serve other purposes. Bolton said it can function as a “visual rumblestrip” to alert drivers to hazards around their vehicle, but that’s not all. It could also be used for ambient lighting, to provide navigation directions like indicating an upcoming left turn for instance or even as a visual equalizer for the audio system.
The LEDs are versatile because they can reproduce practically any color of the rainbow. This could be particularly helpful as a threat waning. One scenario is that the technology could be integrated into a vehicle’s reverse-sensing system. As a driver backs up the lights could change from yellow to orange to red the closer they get to an obstacle. Automakers can customize the color scheme to suit various functions inside a car or truck.
Forward collision warning has also been integrated into the Driver Focus Vehicle. It takes advantage of the 360-degree light strip. LEDs mounted near the base of the windshield can provide a wide and unmistakable warning to drivers if they get too close to the vehicle in front of them.
“If you just turn off the cell phone you did not fully address the issue of distracted driving,” Bolton said. This is clearly a historic problem and one that’s not going away anytime soon. Continental’s Driver-Focused Vehicle shows what safer driving could look like, and it’s a future that’s not too far off.
It could be introduced in a production vehicle sooner than later. Bolton said “we’re hoping within three to five years.” Right now the technology is in user clinics, so stay tuned.