Israeli company Guardian Optical Technologies has added a unique feature to its flagship in-cabin sensor for cars: a vision-based drowsiness and distraction detector. I was contemplating the need for such a device on the road from Los Angeles to San Pedro when a wayward driver cut across two lanes and clipped the fender of a car in front of me.
Distracted and drowsy drivers are a menace. In 2016, 3,450 people were killed by distracted drivers, according to NHTSA. The organization estimates 481,000 drivers daily use cell phones while driving during daytime hours.
Drowsy drivers, meanwhile, are responsible for 21 percent of fatal vehicle crashes, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. There's mounting hope autonomous vehicles will drastically reduce fatal car crashes, which in the U.S. numbered more than 37,000 in 2017.
But we're likely still a decade or more from meaningful consumer adoption of level 4 and 5 autonomy.
In the meantime, as sensor prices fall, companies like Guardian are coming up with some novel onboard sensing suites designed to make cruising the highway safer. Guardian's "All in One" sensor detects inside the cabin of an automobile. The sensor uses video image recognition (2D), depth mapping (3D), and optical micro- to macro-motion analysis to scan vehicle occupants.
The system can monitor for a number of states, including improperly worn seatbelts and infants left behind in cars. The newest capability, a nifty trick of machine vision and machine learning, determines if a driver's head position shifts in a way that suggests drowsiness or distraction. If a threshold for either state is met, the Guardian system sounds an alarm.
"The position of a driver's head is an integral part of understanding whether the driver is paying attention to the road while also indicating if he or she is drowsy," says Gil Dotan, CEO of Guardian.
Tel Aviv-based Guardian has no doubt drawn inspiration from the monumental success of fellow Israeli company Mobileye, one of the early players in the vehicle sensor market. Mobileye is now a leading competitor in front collision detection with a suite of vision-based advanced driver warning systems.
- Top 5 ways cars have gotten more dangerous (CNET)
- The 10 skills you need to land a job working on autonomous vehicles (TechRepublic)
Legacy companies, too, are getting in on the safe driving sensor opportunity, which capitalizes on falling prices and rapidly maturing technologies forged in the crucible of the autonomous driving race to market. Bosch, for example, makes a system that monitors subtle steering irregularities to track truck driver fatigue. Meanwhile, significant research has gone into methods of using the sensor payloads we carry with us most often, our smartphones, to monitor driving habits.
To be sure, sensor-based technologies are stopgaps in the quest to make driving safer, and entirely reliant on user adoption. But if they can make the roads even a little bit safer during what's looking like a longer-than-anticipated bridge period between piloted and driverless vehicles, the space can't mature quickly enough here in Southern California.
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