Inattention is the cause of a significant number of road traumas but an innovative new project is aiming to help drivers keep their mind on the road. Toby Hagon investigates.
This article originally appeared in the December / January 2014 Horizons magazine.
Roughly one in five road fatalities in Western Australia are caused by inattention or fatigue, according to statistics compiled with data from WA Police. RAC road safety experts say those figures are likely significantly higher due to the difficulty in determining when fatigue or inattention plays a part in a crash.
Often it’s impossible to accurately determine, for example, whether the lack of skid marks leading to a fatal crash was because the driver misjudged a corner or was playing with their phone. Behind speeders and drink-drivers, those not paying attention or concentrating fully on driving account for a large proportion of road trauma.
The RAC’s Executive General Manager, Pat Walker, says that while it’s the one issue that can affect almost any motorist, it’s also something we don’t know enough about. “Whether it’s distractions inside or outside the car or simply being on auto pilot, inattention is one of the biggest killers on WA roads. But we still don’t know enough about what happens in that moment when a driver’s mind is elsewhere.”
This year the RAC embarked on a landmark project to learn more about what happens when a driver’s attention is switched off. To gain valuable insight into inattention and its impact on driving performance required literally getting inside the mind of the driver.
The RAC approached Dr Geoffrey Mackellar, Chief Technical Officer at Sydney-based research company Emotiv to use their EEG headset to monitor drivers in a series of tests.
Emotiv’s Australian-designed EPOC headset uses 14 sensors to monitor brain waves. The initial thinking was that by monitoring a driver’s brain activity there could be opportunities to reduce injuries or fatalities by RAC WAs attention powered caravoiding impact altogether. The result of the collaboration between Emotiv and the RAC was the world-first Attention Powered Car project. As the name suggests, the Attention Powered Car is a vehicle that responds depending on whether the driver is paying attention, with pre-determined restrictions implemented for those deemed as not being alert and with their mind on the serious task of driving.
The Attention Powered Car was put to the test in October and November this year when it completed a monitored journey through a number of locations in regional WA and on a controlled track at the RAC Driving Centre.
Even though the brain-monitoring technology had already been developed, Dr Mackellar focused on developing the unit further so that it was able to determine what inattention was and to recognise when a driver was not paying attention.
“We can’t read thoughts, but we can figure out to a fair approximation what’s going on in the brain, in general terms,” says Dr Mackellar. “We can generally detect if someone is alert, if they’re hearing things, whether they’re speaking … just from activity in different parts of the brain.”
But to accurately determine what drivers are actually doing, the project needed to monitor eye movements including the size of pupils and rates of blinking, all of which can give an indication of fatigue and alertness.
“With this project we teamed up with a company that produces eye tracking equipment, so we could look at what people are watching as well as thinking.” Dr Mackellar says one of the biggest challenges was distinguishing between the different things people are concentrating on. “Paying attention can easily be paying attention to a mobile phone,” explains Dr Mackellar.
“So we determined that the most successful strategy was to look at attention switching, scanning between [concentrating on] the road and texting. We wanted to look for specific attention related to driving … and we can detect that with quite good accuracy.”
Focus on distractions
While many modern cars have fatigue – detection systems, that’s all they detect. They cannot determine whether someone has switched their focus from the intersection ahead to the kids in the back seats, something that makes this project unique.
Almost 20 subjects underwent intensive driving simulations on a computer to determine what their brain and eyes were doing under certain situations – such as regular driving, changing music or making a phone call.
“Then we restricted them to 15km/h for 15 minutes, got them bored out of their brains,” says Dr Mackellar, all with the aim of simulating fatigue or inattentive situations.
“We then developed some machine-learning systems to interpret all the data. We had massive statistical modelling packages to get information on what sort of driving constitutes normal driving and distracted driving.”
As well as simulations the aim of the Attention Powered Car project was to move into real-world testing. The project team selected a Hyundai i40 to take part in the high-tech trial. Already a five-star ANCAP safety-rated vehicle, it’s otherwise a standard, four-cylinder family wagon complete with the latest mod cons.
Integrating the headset and associated tracking equipment into the car is where Sydney-based production and technology company Finch came in. Director of Applied Technology Emad Tahtouh says there was plenty of debate early in the project about what the car should do once it was determined the driver wasn’t paying attention.
“Really we wanted to highlight how easy it was to lose attention … so we settled on cutting the accelerator,” explains Tahtouh. “The accelerator is impacted in a way that does not involve the modification of any of the vehicle’s existing operations or systems. We wanted to ensure the Attention Powered Car was safe for use on public roads.”
Detecting inattention only triggers an acceleration cut-off – an existing mechanism in the vehicle. The driver is always in control of the vehicle and can disable the unit at any time with the push of a button mounted on the steering wheel. At no time does the system have any impact on increased acceleration or braking.
Finch went about developing a program that sits between the EEG headset and the car. “Then once we hit certain trigger points it sends an accelerator idle command to the computer, which impacts on the accelerator,” says Tahtouh.
Monitoring driver attention
Tapping into the car’s computer uses a system based on commonly used speed-limiting devices. “Instead of monitoring for the speed limit we’re monitoring for attention,” says Tahtouh.
Configuring rac wa attention powered carEarly testing on a track quickly – and accurately – determined when a driver wandered from the task of driving by reading a map or using their phone. “The effect was instantaneous,” says Tahtouh.
While the RAC has no plans to commercialise the unit, the Attention Powered Car will be used to test different causes of inattention and the findings used to guide the development of appropriate interventions for the better
of all drivers.
The RAC’s Pat Walker says raising more awareness of inattention as a serious issue has also been an important part of the project. “We hope that through this initiative West Australian drivers will acknowledge the fact that we often don’t pay attention behind the wheel in the way we should.”
Already the Hyundai has undergone many real-world kilometres, with strict control conditions. The results of that journey are now being examined.
It’s a preview of an exciting future, where new technology may help us all become more mindful drivers.