When fully-autonomous vehicles become the norm, the former human driver can sleep as much as they like behind the wheel. But until that happens, falling asleep while driving poses a serious and potentially deadly risk. The advice we always hear is if you feel tired, pull over. Panasonic believes it has a better solution: use AI to keep the driver comfortably awake at all times.
According to Panasonic, there's actually five levels of drowsiness: not drowsy at all, slightly drowsy, drowsy, very drowsy and seriously drowsy. The Japanese company developed an in-car system that monitors and detects driver drowsiness before it happens and reacts to it.
The system works through a combination of a camera and sensors which constantly monitor the driver. It can accurately measure blinking features, facial expressions, heat loss from the body and illuminance. This is combined with information gathered about the in-vehicle environment. The sensor and environment data is then processed using artificial intelligence and a judgement made on how drowsy the driver is.
The system is accurate enough to detect shallow drowsiness long before the driver can perceive it. The transitioning of drowsiness level can also be predicted. Such accurate measurements allow the system time to react and adjust the driver's environment to keep them "comfortably awake."
The key to keeping a driver awake is thermal sensation. Typically, people get drowsy when they are too warm, and that is made worse when the environment is dim. So by predicting the drowsiness state, Panasonic can adjust the thermal sensation of the driver using airflow within the vehicle. Changing the air flow and general temperature combined with adjusting the brightness of the environment can counteract the oncoming drowsiness.
Of course, Panasonic's system can only do so much. If a person is driving in a very tired state then no environment changes will maintain a wakeful state. Panasonic has this covered too, by detecting the higher levels of drowsiness. If such a detection is made, an alarm is sounded and a command to rest issued.
What sets Panasonic's system apart from existing detection systems is its silent operation and ability to predict the driver's state. Most of the time the driver will have no idea they are being monitored and the environment around them is adjusting. They will most likely just feel more awake for the entire journey.
Panasonic expects to have the system available to test by vehicle manufacturers in October. If they like what they see then we could see new vehicles incorporating it next year.
This story originally appeared on PCMag