Most drivers wouldn’t even consider driving while drunk, but few so much as pause before getting behind the wheel when they’re tired — even though drowsy driving can be just as dangerous as drunk driving.
According to the CDC, drowsy driving caused 72,000 crashes in 2013. These crashes resulted in 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths that year, though the CDC suggests these that numbers could be low and that the problem may be getting worse. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that traffic deaths were on the rise after decades of decreasing numbers. Drowsy driving almost certainly plays a part in this increase.
With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is calling for a variety of approaches to reduce drowsy driving, including changes in legislation, education, and technology. The rise of smart and self-driving cars could help reduce the occurrence of drowsy driving accidents, although fully autonomous cars may be further off than we’d like.
Driverless roads offer hope for the distant future
It’s clear that self-driving cars are the future. Companies from Tesla to Uber to Google to just about every major car manufacturer are working on the technology. Audi and Google already have largely self-driving vehicles, Tesla’s latest models have impressive autonomous features, and most other manufacturers hope to launch autonomous cars in 2020. Driverless technology is close enough that Congress recently passed legislation to prepare for it.
Driverless cars will change many things, but their potential to eliminate drowsy driving accidents is one of the most exciting possibilities. Most of the companies working on driverless technology are developing fully autonomous vehicles. A person’s drowsiness would no longer pose a risk in these vehicles, as they can drive themselves without any intervention. This will prove especially beneficial for professions like trucking, which requires long, late hours — both significant risk factors for drowsy driving.
Autonomous cars offer a promising solution, but we cannot rely solely on the hope of a completely driverless future. Even when the technology is widely available and more affordable, user adoption will need to catch up for the roads to become safer.
Smart sensors detect drowsiness
Although self-driving cars are perhaps one of the most obvious solutions to the problem of drowsy driving, they aren’t the only answer. Before we see a fully autonomous future, we can expect to see a more widespread adoption of car technology that recognizes drowsy drivers. In fact, Mercedes-Benz already uses Attention Assist to guide drowsy drivers to nearby rest stops.
During the first several minutes of a drive, Mercedes’ Attention Assist takes note of over 70 parameters to understand the driver’s behavior. As the drive continues, the technology monitors the driver’s steering to identify corrections that could indicate drowsiness. The system also takes into account factors like crosswinds and road smoothness to give a more accurate assessment. If the system adds up all the factors and determines that the driver is drowsy, it provides an alert encouraging the driver to stop for a rest. This is great news for current and aspiring Mercedes owners, but what about the rest of us?
Similar technologies that could impact other car manufacturers are in the works. For example, Panasonic is developing a system that measures a driver’s body temperature, blinking, and facial expressions to detect how tired they are. The system then adjusts the car’s temperature and lighting to perk the driver up. This technology could be in cars as early as next year, helping prevent thousands of drowsy driving accidents.
Chipmaker Nvidia is also in the process of developing technology that could help reduce the number of drowsy drivers on the road. The company recently made headlines for its project to develop a product called Co-Pilot. The technology learns a driver’s routine behaviors and looks for deviations that could signal drowsiness. Changes in functions like the driver’s posture, blink rate, head position, and steering style trigger the system. When Co-Pilot senses something is amiss, the technology alerts the driver of the danger associated with continued operation of the vehicle. Co-Pilot is still under development, but it offers hope for the future safety of our roads.
Until these baked-in technologies are available in more cars, wearables could help. The Steer bracelet offers another potential solution to drowsy driving. The technology monitors driver behavior and sends a gentle electric stimulus if it senses fatigue. Aside from the obvious caveat of asking drivers to wear a shock collar around their wrists, this technology could be a solid option for long-haul drivers looking for an immediate solution that’s a bit more budget-friendly than a brand new Mercedes.
There are plenty of other drowsiness-detecting technologies in the works. In the future, detected drowsiness could signal the car to take over. Until then, these technologies will adjust the cabin to wake drivers up or urge them to pull over.
Our cars can’t save us quite yet
Automotive AI is advancing quickly, but we’re still several years out from achieving a widespread solution. For now, cars with advanced safety features — like lane monitoring that can detect when you drift out of your lane and the backup cameras that are available in most new cars — could help drivers remain a little more alert. Technologies like Steer and other wearable devices could also help those who drive older models that lack the latest safety features. While such technologies aren’t a perfect for solution for drowsy driving, they can help combat some of the effects until we have an all-compassing solution.
Above all: Get some sleep, and drive safely.
Alice Williams is a freelance writer who specializes in tech and business.