Falling asleep at the wheel, aka drowsy driving, caused 83,000 crashes between 2005 and 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2014 alone, drowsy driving resulted in 846 deaths. And nearly half of all the drivers on the road between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. nod off while they’re driving.
While we wait for autonomous cars to solve this problem by letting us nap while they drive us around, some simpler technology is already available.
High-Tech Trucker Hats
Ford, with its partner GTB, has developed a mesh-back trucker cap for keeping truckers (not hipsters) awake while they work.
First, they scanned and mapped truck drivers at the wheel to recognize normal movements—checking the mirrors, changing the radio station, singing along with the radio enthusiastically. They also took note of movements that signaled being tired: long, slow blinks; head dropping at an angle toward the shoulder; and that head snap that means you fell asleep for a second and came to very suddenly.
SafeCap, which looks like any other cap and requires no wires, has a chip embedded in it. The chip senses the wearer’s movements and, if the driver seems tired, alerts them to pull over and rest.
Wake Up and See the Coffee
Mercedes-Benz has offered drowsy-driving technology in its luxury cars since 2010. It’s called Attention Assist, and it doesn’t require a hat.
Mercedes’s research showed that tired drivers are terrible at steering their cars. They drift in their lane—or even out of it—then jerk the wheel back to the center of the lane to correct the error. This happens in the early stages of tiredness, before that head-snapping microsleep stage.
If the system senses that the driver is drowsy, a little coffee cup pops up in the instrument cluster. Well, Mercedes says it’s an espresso cup, and it is small. In any case, this digital warm beverage and accompanying tone tell you that you need to pull over at the next rest stop.
The Future Is Now
Of course, some of this is already being addressed by advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Those lane change issues, for example, are mitigated in vehicles that have lane keeping alert and lane keeping assist. The first beeps to tell you that you’re wandering across lane markers, and the second actually takes control of the vehicle to steer you back to center.
Some vehicles available now can perform basic piloting tasks, like simple highway driving, using adaptive cruise control and lane keeping technology. If you’re tired, this can help remove some of the cognitive load on your exhausted brain. But you still have to pay attention; if the driving gets tricky, like unexpected debris in the road or a construction zone, you’ll have to take over.
In the future, vehicles will be able to do more and more driving for us. But for the next few years at least, you’re going to need either a good night’s sleep or a strong cup of coffee to stay alert at the wheel.