• Automated Driving
  • Automated Driving Systems
  • Automated Vehicles
  • Advanced Driver Assistance Systems

Active Driver Monitoring May Be Our Most Important Safety Tool

Sam Abuelsamid
May 19, 2021

Guidehouse Insights

When Cadillac launched its Super Cruise hands-free driver assistance system in 2017, it debuted a new type of driver monitoring system (DMS) to help minimize the risk of driver misuse. The DMS was supplied by Seeing Machines, an Australian company that recently announced it has supply contracts with seven automakers. Multiple automakers, including General Motors (GM), BMW, Subaru, Ford, Nissan, and Stellantis are or soon will be installing similar sensors that keep an eye on the driver.

Watching the Driver

DMSs can have safety benefits that go well beyond partially automated advanced driver assistance systems (ADASs). The initial DMS applications are designed to ensure that the driver keeps their eyes on the road while using a Level 2 ADAS that maintains speed and lane position. The DMS monitoring is typically accomplished by using an infrared illuminator and camera to track the driver’s head position and gaze. If the DMS determines that the driver isn’t watching the road, it will trigger audible and visual alerts to get the driver’s attention. If the driver doesn’t respond, the DMS will typically slow the vehicle and bring it to a safe stop with the hazard warning lights on. 

However, making sure the driver stays in the loop while using partial automation isn’t the only use case for DMS. Distracted and drowsy driving has long been recognized as a significant factor in many crashes. In the early 2000s, a number of automakers began trying to detect drowsiness based on steering wheel motion. Tesla and most other automakers still use this approach in an attempt to determine whether the driver’s hands are on the steering wheel. Unfortunately, steering wheel motion patterns often aren’t a good indicator of alertness or hands on the wheel as evidenced by the number of YouTube videos featuring Tesla owners with hands off the steering wheel or even drivers climbing out of the driver’s seat entirely

A camera-based DMS can be used to detect driver alertness at any time the vehicle is in motion. Whether the driver is looking down at a phone, tired, ill, or impaired, DMSs can be extremely valuable. As most modern vehicles are internet-connected, if the DMS determines the driver isn’t alert, the vehicle can even automatically call for assistance, a feature that GM has built into Super Cruise since 2017. 

Watching the Back Seat Too

Sensors can also be used to monitor other vehicle occupants, particularly those in the rear seat. Imaging radar developer Vayyar has proposed using its sensor to detect the presence of children and provide alerts to the driver when they exit the vehicle with a child inside. In addition to Seeing Machines, suppliers such as Magna have announced DMSs. The Magna sensor is embedded in the interior rearview mirror for simple packaging and uses infrared similar to the technology from Seeing Machines. An infrared camera has the advantage of better detection at night and through dark sunglasses.

Regulators in Europe are already in the process of incorporating DMSs as a requirement for a top score in the European New Car Assessment Programme, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, which harmonized regulation for Level 3 automated lane keeping systems, also mandates DMSs. In the US, three senators recently introduced a bill that would direct the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to mandate DMSs. 

Long before we are ready to take humans out of the driving loop on a large scale, active DMSs are a relatively simple and reliable way to ensure people remain completely in the loop and to potentially help avoid many crashes.