Drowsy drivers are one of the biggest dangers on the road. Unlike hazards, complex junctions and erratic drivers, they’re not easy to spot. In many cases, drivers are not aware they’re so tired and should take a break. However, thanks to a collaboration between AI developers Affectiva and TomTom, tired drivers on our roads could become a thing of the past.
In 2019, according to figures from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA), there were 697 fatalities caused by “drowsy driving.” In 2017, there were 91,000 police-reported crashes caused by a tired driver. Around 50,000 people were injured as a result.
On the other side of the Atlantic in the UK, the nation’s Automobile Association (the AA) says that one in five accidents on major roads are a result of driver tiredness.
In fact, driver fatigue is said to be a contributing factor in 20% of all road traffic accidents. That figure rises to 25% for fatal incidents. If we turn our attention to trucking, driver fatigue contributes to some 30 to 40% of accidents where haulage vehicles are involved.
Cars are safer than they’ve ever been before. Passive safety features like three-point seatbelts, airbags and crumple zones are standard. And active safety technologies like ABS, automatic emergency braking and lane keep assistants are becoming common. However, none of these systems considers the state of the driver.
If we’re to realize the next generation of vehicle and road safety, we need to develop safety systems that don’t just respond to accidents or focus outwardly on the road ahead, but instead, turn their gaze into the cabin to focus on the driver.
Driver monitoring systems (DMS) are the obvious answer – while not an entirely new concept, they are growing in use. They’re set to become a new standard in vehicle safety as rating agencies like Euro NCAP require them for cars to take the highest safety score.
These safety systems are already being used to ensure that drivers are paying attention to the road, as part of some ADAS technologies. Generally speaking, they’re designed to alert the driver if their attention begins to drift. Audio and visual alerts will attempt to bring the driver’s presence of mind back to the road, to ensure they continue to drive safely. But for most, that’s where the functionality ends.
Prompting the driver to pay attention if their eyes drift from the road is clearly a good thing in the moment, but what if their attention is chronically reduced and it’s not just a momentary lapse of concentration? What if they’re repeatedly distracted, fatigued, struggling to keep their eyes open, and thinking slower than normal?
The first challenge is being able to interpret the signs of a drowsy driver–which means recognizing the difference between a momentary lapse of concentration and genuine, accident-causing fatigue.
Affectiva, recently acquired by Smart Eye, a provider of AI-based eye tracking and driver monitoring systems, is attempting to address this challenge in collaboration with TomTom.
Affectiva developed Emotion AI and Human Perception AI categories. Built on deep learning, computer vision, speech science and masses of real-world data. Affectiva says its technology can now detect nuanced human emotions, complex cognitive states, activities, interactions and objects people use. Integrating the company’s technology in a vehicle cabin helps automakers understand what is happening behind the wheel of a vehicle to deliver advanced safety features.
The company’s drowsiness detection technology, integrated with the TomTom-powered navigation system, can use driver facing cameras to continually monitor how attentive the driver is to the road ahead. When the driver is detected as being moderately to severely drowsy, the TomTom Navigation Application can intervene to ensure the driver reacts and responds safely to their fatigue.
Affectiva detecting driver drowsiness. A score of 100 shows a very high probability and 0 shows very low probability.
When the system detects a sleepy driver, it delivers audible and visual alerts to ensure they regain their attention, as you’d expect. However, Affectiva and TomTom’s application of the technology goes a step further to encourage more positive action in terms of safety.
Following the initial warnings, TomTom’s route planning, based on local points of interest, will suggest routes to stopover locations for the driver to take a break, rest, recharge, and regain their concentration levels. As TomTom takes care of the entire navigation process, it will always suggest rest areas that keep the driver close to their route.
When a driver is showing signs of tiredness, the TomTom navigation will alert them and suggest they find a place to rest.
Over time, if a driver becomes consistently tired after driving for three hours, TomTom powered navigation unit will take note and automatically encourage the driver to add in a break at the three-hour mark, and it can even suggest hotel stops for long, fatiguing journeys.
Using TomTom’s live traffic data, the system can also route drivers who are becoming tired away from traffic jams. This would allow time for the driver to recover, and for the traffic jam to dissipate, making much better use of their time and meaning their onward journey is safer and less stressful than if they’d sat in traffic.
The navigation system can route the driver to a rest area that’s close to their original route, ensuring no time is wasted.
How far away the destination is, and how drowsy the driver appears, will also affect how long the driver is told to rest. If the driver is three hours into a six-hour journey, a good amount of rest would be suggested. If the driver is two hours into a three-hour drive, a short coffee at a filling station might be enough to help them recover concentration and continue their journey as safely as possible.
The NHTSA and the AA provide tips that drivers should follow to remain alert and avoid accidents. But with TomTom and Affectiva’s technology, drivers can travel in the knowledge that they’ll be alerted in good time when their attention wanes and will also be given intelligent recommendations on where and when to stop, and how long they should take to recharge.
Indeed, given the impact drowsy drivers have on road safety, monitoring them and encouraging them to take appropriate rest could have a significant positive impact on reducing accidents and fatalities.