Making Sense of the Sensors for Driver Monitoring

Making Sense of the Sensors for Driver Monitoring

By Tiffany Huang, Lux Research

Automotive accident reduction is a huge goal for automotive OEMs, with some companies like Volvo promising that by 2020 their cars will be "deathproof." One of the major safety issues that companies have been pouring effort and money into in the last five to 10 years is in the driver status monitoring space. Driver monitoring is essential as issues such as distracted driving, drunk driving, drowsy driving, and road rage have injured over 800,000 people a year in the U.S. alone.  Almost all of the major automotive OEMs have invested in driver monitoring technology – with some companies including Toyota, Volkswagen, Nissan, and Mercedes-Benz – implementing the first versions of these systems in select models.

Today, driver monitoring safety focuses on the measurement of three major signals, which are biological signals, automotive signals, and detection of alcohol. Biological signals include measurement on how the driver is acting; for example, an accelerated heart rate can indicate road rage or fear, closed eyes indicate drowsiness, and head movement indicates inattentiveness. Automotive signals indirectly measure the driver's status by measuring how the person interacts with the vehicle; this includes if the car begins to drift from a specific lane, how the steering wheel is utilized, what grip strength is used on the steering wheel, and if the user is interacting with the center console actively. Alcohol detection is the third category, and it measures the blood alcohol concentration of a driver without the use of breathalyzers. The following figure shows the major types of driver sensing system and the companies that are developing them in each space.


There are many system types out there today, but not all of them will win. Today, companies are investing in those that can perform more than one function.  This includes pre-installed infrared (IR) cameras that can monitor a person's eyes, face, and head movements. These sensors offer more than just safety, they increase the driver's control of the vehicle, authorize the driver to prevent theft, and improve control of the entertainment system. For example, General Motor's eye tracking system can align the headlight direction to the direction the driver is looking at, and VocalZoom plans to have safety, biometric identification, and better audio control with its audio/visual cameras. Automotive OEMs only have to install one of these sensor systems, and they only have to invest in software upgrades to add additional functionality. Other sensors, like heart rate monitoring – which use noncontact electrocardiogram (ECG) devices that are implemented on a driver's seat or a radio frequency (RF) sensor placed above a driver – have less investment from automotive OEMs because they only address safety. Companies that would like to install more features would have to invest in multiple hardware and software solutions if they went the ECG route.

While IR cameras are likely to win overall, some niche markets will require alcohol detection, which will keep these products on the market. These markets include truck delivery drivers as well as court-mandated installations for people convicted of driving under the influence (DUI). Driver status alcohol monitoring sensors are better than breathalyzers, as they can detect a person's blood alcohol continuously (instead of just when the car is started) and measure a person's alcohol invasively when placed in areas such as on the grips of a steering wheel. In addition, for delivery markets, these sensors have the capability to act as fingerprint sensors, which can authenticate if the person driving the car is authorized to do so. There is also a gap in the alcohol detection space, where companies could innovate in other technologies like cameras or audio to track for inebriation signs of a driver (like atypical speech patterns) instead of direct alcohol content measurements. Those who are developing technologies in the space should be mindful of the competing technologies, and look to develop products that can add the most functionality.

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Global Update
July 19, 2016