While Google, universities and car companies work on perfecting self-driving vehicles, flawed and sometimes sleepy human drivers still fill our roads.
But new technology could help detect when those drivers start to feel tired and possibly prevent dangerous accidents. A research project at the University of Leicester have combined eye-tracking and brain monitoring to calculate when a driver’s alertness starts to wane.
Researchers have used the two tracking technologies on their own before, but Dr. Matias Ison, who led this project, said they’ve found a new way to combine them for more accurate information about a person’s state of mind.
“We have managed to overcome the challenges that were standing in the way of integrating these technologies,” said Dr. Ison in a statement announcing the research. “This is already leading to a much better understanding of how the brain responds when the eyes are moving.”
To detect eye movements, researchers aim an array of LED lights at the subject’s eyes. An infra-red camera sensor detectes the reflection of the lights off of the eyes.
They tracked brain activity using an electroencephalograph, or EEG. A cap covered in electrodes detects what part of the brain are active. A computer can tie that data to specific types of thoughts, and together with eye-movements, the information collected can tell a computer system if a person is getting sleepy.
Currently still in the bulky test stages, engineers could streamline the technology for use outside of the lab in three to five years.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are more than 100,000 crashes, 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths a year in the United States as a result of drivers nodding off at the wheel.
Distracted driving is also a hurdle for researchers working on self-driving cars. The first wave of automated vehicles won’t completely take over the job of driving. Early features will focus on specific tasks like getting through traffic or fitting into tight parking spots. The problem with semi-automatic driving, though, is that when it’s time to hand the controls back to humans, the driver will need to be alert and ready to steer.
Grabbing their attention could be much easier if the car has more information about their current state, possibly avoiding turning over the car to a driver before they are ready.
The experiments were part of a 14-month research project at the university’s Centre for Systems Neuroscience. It has potential interesting applications beyond just cars.
Researchers said it could be used for hands-free video games in which players control the action with their eye movements and thoughts. Other uses could include controlling wheelchairs and diagnosing dyslexia.
By Heather Kelly,