Auto Tech

Safety-conscious cockpit can see when you're asleep at the wheel

Living in harmony with self-driving cars could get safer thanks to some new tech from a major Japanese component company.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

A new concept car cockpit could make it safer to take the wheel of your self-driving car.

Autonomous cars will soon be able to handle a lot of the driving in a journey, but we're still many years away from them being able to manage all of it. Once you hit the off-ramp you're still going to have to take the wheel -- at least for the first generation of autonomous cars. This may seem simple, but handing control over to a human driver is complicated than you might think.

The autonomous system needs to ensure that you're 100 percent awake and ready before it disables itself. If you've decided to, say, get a little extra sleep during your morning commute, it might take a few minutes before you're alert enough to drive. To help with this, Japanese component and medical equipment manufacturer Omron has created a concept that could hand over control more smoothly.

We've seen various car manufacturers rely on proprietary technologies to make checks on the alertness of drivers, but Omron's system is small, simple and available as components that any auto manufacturers can quickly plug into their cars. Two components, actually, the first being an infra-red camera installed in the gauge cluster. This shines on the driver's face and tells the car where the driver is looking and, with some gesture recognition, can even detect if the driver picks up a phone or grabs a drink.

A second sensor, installed in the seat or the door, wirelessly monitors the driver's pulse, and that plus the camera can tell the car whether you're awake or sleeping -- even if you're about to fall asleep. And, with an optional blood pressure monitor, the system could even tell someone with high blood pressure to back off a little bit before an epic case of road rage becomes a cardiac event.

What the car does with all that information will be largely up to the manufacturer. In Omron's demo, warning noises and flashing lights come up to warn the driver, but it's easy to imagine things like buzzing seats and, who knows, maybe even in-car coffee dispensers some day. And if the car can't alert the driver? It could pull itself to the side of the road and wait in a safe location, potentially requesting medical help if the person appears unresponsive.

Again, this isn't exactly novel technology, but its embodiment in a simple, easy-to-apply system that manufacturers can license should remove one major development roadblock that's been standing between autonomous cars and the market. Even outside of autonomous cars, adding improved systems like this to any car could help to cut down on the estimated 400,000 injuries caused annually by distracted drivers. The only problem? It all needs a lot more testing before it's ready to deploy -- so don't expect for your car to start watching you with this tech before 2020.