If the science fiction dreamers have it right, this century will see us abandon driving. Software will take over this mechanical function and leave us free to do whatever we want during the journey. To give you an idea of the timescale, some manufacturers are promising self-driving vehicles in 2020. This is probably too optimistic because, in addition to proving the software systems safe enough to take over completely from human drivers, there will be endless debate between the law-makers and the insurers as to who is going to be responsible in the event of accidents. Accidents? Well many people think the combination of autonomous and human drivers on the same roads is a recipe for catastrophe. Imagine all these perfect machines suddenly having to confront the brutal reality of imperfect humans who, more often than not, will exploit known problems with automated responses to have a little fun.
While we wait, we’re not supposed to use distracting technology while we drive and, sadly, if we’re tired, there’s no choice but to stop and take a powernap to recharge the human batteries for the rest of the journey. In fact, falling asleep is becoming one of the major causes of deaths. In 2012, some 33,561 people died as a result of falling asleep. In Europe with a larger population, there were 28,100 deaths. When it comes to the number of injuries, we’re talking 100s of thousands so anything that can be done to reduce the risk is to be applauded.
That’s where Harken comes into play.
This is a series of sensors built into the safety belts and the covers over the seats. Instead of having to wait for you to notice tiredness from yawning or momentary losses of control, the sensors monitor your rate of breathing and heart rate. Most people go through a very predictable pattern of changes to breathing as they move closer to sleep. Heart rate also drops. Once the senors detect the start of this spiral towards sleep, it can warn the driver. The clever part of this system is its ability to filter out all the background vibration from the vehicle and all the other movements a driver makes in his or her seat. In tests, the Harken system is becoming a very reliable indicator of danger.
The manufacturers of the more expensive vehicles have already introduced some of this technology. Mercedes-Benz has a set of sensors to detect changes in the movement of the steering wheel and to sound a warning if the movements suggest loss of complete control. Similarly, the Lexus has cameras that monitor the driver’s head and eye movements. If the eyes stop responding quickly to events outside the car, the Lexus slows down. There’s even a proposal from BMW that there could be a more general system introduced to monitor the health of the driver and to warn of an approaching heart attack or other potentially serious events. With development of Harken moving ahead rapidly, the hope is to have this in all new models from 2016 onward. It’s expected to save thousands of lives.