Falling asleep at the wheel? Drowsiness-control technology could help keep you awake

All or at least most of us have probably done it — fought off drowsiness while driving. Driving late at night, after a long day, not getting enough sleep the night before or trying to get a few more hours of driving in during a long trip. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration considers drowsy driving 'impaired driving,' in the same classification with drunk or distracted driving. And it can have dire consequences. A Governors Highway Safety Association report released last year said drowsy drivers were involved in 5,000 traffic deaths in the U.S. with associated societal costs of roughly $109 billion annually.

While driverless vehicles are expected to greatly reduce the number of traffic accidents and fatalities by removing human error from the driving equation, that next generation of transportation isn't here yet. So when Council Associate Partner Panasonic announced its drowsiness-control technology, we thought you would want to know about it. It's not the first instance of drowsiness detection technology, but it's certainly an interesting development in the field. — Doug Peeples


The technology isn't about alarms or anything nearly that intrusive, except as a last resort. Instead, it's intended to keep drivers awake and safe and do it in a manner subtle enough that they remain comfortable.

How does it work?
At the heart of it is sensing technology that can determine a driver's level of drowsiness accurately without any kind of physical contact. A camera in the vehicle cabin records the driver's facial expressions, how they blink their eyes and other signs of drowsiness. Then, artificial intelligence processes the information recorded by the camera.

Also, an infrared array sensor detects heat loss from the driver's body. (Research conducted by Panasonic in collaboration with Japan's Chiba University determined that body heat loss is related to drowsiness.) An environment sensor also tracks surrounding brightness, which also is related to a person's level of drowsiness.

With that information available, the drowsiness-control technology can make alterations in the vehicle's environment to keep the driver awake and comfortable — by adjusting the air conditioner, for example. If a driver is determined to be extremely drowsy, the system will trigger a sound alarm or command to stop and rest.

Panasonic says uses for drowsiness-control technology extend beyond vehicles. For example, it could be used in offices, schools and other appropriate situations. Samples of the technology are expected to be available by October 2017.

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Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.