However, experts agree that fully automated driving systems are still years, if not decades, away, making the human element a lingering part of the equation. As semi-automated driving systems become increasingly ubiquitous in passenger vehicles, a relatively new form of human error has reared its ugly head – distracted driving. Concern over distracted drivers with their eyes on their phones, tablets, etc., and failing to pay enough attention to avoid preventable collisions and other accidents continue to increase as automated driving systems have become more common. Although confirmed malfunctions in automated driving systems have been sporadic, there are still legitimate concerns about their safety, mainly regarding the element of human error.
How do car manufacturers and regulators ensure drivers operating vehicles with automated driving systems pay attention to the road? One method is utilizing technology implemented in commercial truck fleets for years (figure 1) – driver monitoring systems (DMS). DMS uses sensors to monitor the driver’s facial position and eye movements to determine whether they are alert and looking out the front windshield. If the system detects that the driver is distracted or inattentive, it will sound an alert or flash interior lights to warn them of any potential dangers on the road and apply the brakes if the driver doesn’t respond. Legislation has been introduced in the United States, the European Union, and China to make DMS a mandatory feature of new automobiles by the end of this decade. Let’s look at the current state of DMS and where it might be headed.
DMS – past and present
As previously mentioned, DMS has been used in commercial vehicle fleet management in the U.S., parts of Europe, and Asia. DMS has been found to reduce accidents in the commercial shipping and transportation industry and has helped make drivers more time-efficient and confirm their adherence to the stringent safety protocols that driving large commercial vehicles entails. Until recently, however, those systems relied primarily on human oversight of drivers, meaning video captured by DMS would need to be uploaded to the cloud and then reviewed by human watchdogs. The lag time between the driver showing signs of distraction and the human monitor activating the driver alert system was a significant drawback in the functionality of those early systems. By utilizing AI, DMS can alert drivers in real-time if their attention is perceived to have wandered.
Most DMS technologies work along similar lines. A camera equipped with infrared LED sensors is mounted on the steering column that monitors the position of the driver’s head (are they looking up at the road or down at their phone?). It also monitors the movement of the driver’s eyes and the frequency with which they blink (people blink more often when they’re drowsy than when they’re awake and alert). When the DMS determines that the driver isn’t responsive enough to possible road dangers or unsafe behaviors, like drifting in and out of lanes, it activates the driver alert system.
The DMS then lets the automated driving system take the appropriate action if the driver doesn’t intervene in time (figure 2). Lexus was the first auto manufacturer to implement DMS in a passenger vehicle back in 2006, quickly followed by Lexus’s parent companies, Toyota and Volvo. American car manufacturers like Ford and Cadillac and European companies like BMW have also developed and deployed DMS in some models. The expectation is that virtually all automobile companies will be investing in DMS in the next decade.
DMS system implementation and safety
Safety is the primary consideration in implementing driver monitoring technology. Infrared and ultrasonic sensors can monitor everything from the position of the driver’s head and hands to how frequently they blink – long periods of staring uninterrupted blinking can indicate that the driver is unfocused and/or slow to react to sudden changes in driving conditions.
DMS can also monitor a driver’s facial expressions and differentiate between active, dynamic states like frustration and anxiousness and more passive, complacent states like boredom. Future implementations could also include cooperative functionality with a driver’s medical device or health monitor. For instance, a driver’s heart monitor could relate to the DMS that the driver is experiencing a cardiac episode and safely stop and park the car while sending out a request of emergency services to respond to its location.
DMS can do more than just monitor the driver’s positioning and demeanor. It can also use object recognition to detect whether a driver is holding their phone or another handheld electronic device while behind the wheel. It can also differentiate between liquid containers, such as soda cans and beer bottles. Most aluminum cans have similar dimensions, but beer and wine bottles come in precise shapes and sizes – the DMS can alert the automated driving system that the driver may be under the influence and take over until the vehicle can be stopped safely. DMS can even detect and recognize non-human lifeforms in the driver’s seat, which could be a blow to the subset of people that think it’s safe to drive a car with a small dog sitting in their laps. In the future, facial recognition software implemented in a car’s DMS could even prevent auto theft – if someone whose face isn’t recognized by the DMS attempts to start the car, the system will lock the ignition and steering mechanisms and immediately alert the authorities.
Present and future regulatory environment
Like the implementation of most automotive safety features since the invention of the internal combustion engine, like seat belts and airbags, the adoption of DMS in new vehicles en masse will be compelled by governmental oversight and regulation. In the United States, several bills have been introduced in Congress that would allocate funds to the study and development of DMS, the first step in a long legislative process that’s working toward making DMS mandatory in all new automobiles sold in the U.S. in the future.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act in July of 2020, a massive highway and infrastructure bill that mandated DMS systems be included in all newly manufactured vehicles with automated driving capabilities. The bill ended up sinking into the abyss of partisan politics that is the U.S. Senate. Still, including the DMS stipulation in the bill was a big step forward for proponents of safer self-driving technology. Last year, two Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee members introduced the Stay Aware For Everyone Act (SAFE). The bill would provide funding for the Department of Transportation to study the effects of distracted driving on the overall rate of road accidents and to determine how effective DMS systems are in reducing inattentive driving. If passed, the bill would give the DoT a two-year window to collect and analyze data on distracted driving and DMS (subject to privacy laws) and mandate that the Secretary of Transportation make a “final rule” on the required inclusion of DMS in newly manufactured automobiles. Consumer Reports, the National Safety Council, and other automotive safety advocacy groups have endorsed the SAFE Act. As of this writing, the SAFE act had stalled in the Senate; its future is unclear.
The transition to making DMS mandatory in new vehicles is already underway in the EU. In 2019, the EU’s Council of Ministers enacted a general safety regulation that requires all newly manufactured automobiles available in the EU to include enhanced safety features, including driver monitoring technology. The new rules begin to take effect this year. While they currently only apply to new automobiles with some automated driving capability, they will apply to all newly manufactured cars in the EU by 2026. The council estimates that this legislation will prevent over 100,000 automobile accidents in the following decade. Legislation isn’t the only way the EU is investing in DMS. The EU’s New Car Assessment Program, or Euro NCAP, now requires new cars to include driver monitoring capabilities to receive a five-star safety rating.
China, the world’s largest automotive market, has made inroads toward mandatory DMS implementation in new vehicles. In 2018, regulators in the Jiangsu province made DMS a requirement for long-haul trucking fleets and cars used to transport hazardous materials and waste to help reduce road accidents and dangerous spills. A similar national mandate was expected until the pandemic significantly reduced road traffic, making DMS legislation a lower priority. As commerce bounces back, interest in national DMS-related regulation is expected to be revived.
The future of DMS
Considering the international interest in instituting checks and balances on the mass implementation of (semi-) automated driving systems and improving driving safety, DMS seemingly has a bright future in tomorrow’s automotive market. Implementing AI has already made DMS more efficient and provided enhanced functionality.
The next stage in DMS’s development will likely be incorporating facial recognition software – Subaru already employs FR in its DriverFocus system. The system alerts the driver if they’ve looked away from the road for more than three seconds at a time while simultaneously putting the automobile’s automated driving system into a heightened state of alert in case the system needs to take over for the driver.
There are privacy concerns centered around cameras constantly capturing video while vehicles are in operation; those concerns will probably have to be addressed before facial recognition software becomes a widely accepted feature of DMS. Despite those concerns, if China’s national safety regulations and legislation in the House and Senate are eventually enacted, DMS figures will proliferate into passenger vehicles at a substantial rate over the next decade.
Get ready for your car to pay more attention to you when you’re not paying attention to the road.