Back in 1995, forward-thinking road safety experts in the Swedish government were working on a radical new vision for the future of automotive safety. With the number of cars on the road rising, keeping people safe had become a political priority. But Sweden decided to take things further than simply reducing the number of road accidents. The government decided to aim for no road fatalities — what came to be known as Vision Zero.
Vision Zero was the conclusion of many years of investigation, research, and thought related to automotive safety. A coalition of government officials, road safety experts, and stakeholders in the automotive industry scrutinized and assessed the most effective way to tackle serious and fatal road traffic accidents. Since then, Vision Zero has spread across the world, becoming the benchmark by which governments and car manufacturers measure themselves on safety.
But here we are in 2022, and road safety is an unsettled cause. According to data from the WHO (WHO data), 1.3 million road deaths are recorded yearly. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death between the ages of 5-29, and it is estimated that road accidents cost most countries 3% of their GDP. Traffic deaths are a humanitarian and economic catastrophe.
Road accidents are decreasing in developed countries thanks to the introduction of seat belts, airbags, and better communication around driving under the influence. Still, a substantial rise in deaths globally in 2021 highlights that there is a long way to go.
In recent years, one technology has proven to be particularly effective at preventing road traffic accidents. This is the driver monitoring system (DMS) — a full-system solution integrated in the vehicle, which tracks the sight, alertness, and concentration of the driver. These systems vary, but they are all designed to address a problem that has alluded safety experts for decades… driver drowsiness and distraction.
Euro NCAP claims that 90% of accidents can be traced to some form of human error (Euro NCAP roadmap), but drowsiness and distraction are major causes of deaths on the road. Unlike driving under the influence, getting behind the wheel when tired is not illegal, yet you are three times more likely to cause an accident when drowsy than fully rested. Similarly, distractions can arise anytime and when we least expect them. People are often unaware that they are drowsy or distracted, but the DMS isn’t. Driver monitoring watches for key signs that you may be at risk and offers prompts to wake you up or shift your attention back to the road.
Camera-based driver monitoring systems use sensors to track head position, gaze patterns, and eyelid activity. When put into action, the car can use these fundamental signals to respond to the driver's mental state with prompts, and even interact with an ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistant System). A DMS is unobtrusive and flexible, continually tracking the driver and taking glasses, masks, and headgear into consideration; it even works in situations with poor lighting. As sensor fusion develops, the DMS will soon be able to interact with LIDAR/RADAR and detect if the driver has noticed traffic signs or pedestrians. The system would then take the appropriate action and present warnings to the driver to mitigate the danger of the situation. Driver monitoring will continue to make a safer road environment as it develops upon the tracking of drowsiness and distraction.
In 2024, all new vehicles approved in Europe will need to have DMS by law, a move that will tackle driver distraction and drowsiness on an industrial scale. What's more, every major OEM in the US has plans to integrate DMS into their vehicles as a priority. By 2025, the market for driver monitoring systems is expected to reach nearly 2 billion US dollars, thanks to the near-universal recognition of DMS and belief in Vision Zero.
New features are already being theorized to bring the driver monitoring system squarely into the mainstream. Intoxication-detection software, for example, will help prevent accidents and aid authorities. Combining driver monitoring with driver assistance will open a range of possibilities. For example, lane-departure warning systems will understand if the driver is aware they are drifting, and an advanced emergency braking system will use DMS to consider delayed driver response time when distraction is detected.
On the journey to Vision Zero, no single technological innovation will get us to the finish line. Still, the driver monitoring system is proving itself a powerful tool in closing a gap that the industry has long struggled to close. Human error due to drowsiness and distraction has been a confusing and unspecific enemy for road safety experts, but the DMS supports the belief in a future without accident-related fatalities.
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