Continental's halo of light gets distracted drivers' eyes back on the road

Posted on March 5, 2013

Auto supplier Continental has developed an eye-catching visual alert system in the battle against the menace of distracted driving, a battle that’s an auto industry top priority.

The premise is simple: If your eyes are looking in the right direction, hazards are more easily avoided. So Continental created a string of lights that runs along the inside of the car and is turned on and off in a way that draws a distracted driver’s eyes back to the road.

Continental’s “halo” is just one of many attempts from various companies to crack the nut of distracted driving by creating a safety system.

Today’s vehicles are laden with safety technology and sensors to read the surroundings and send messages to a car’s electronic brain. There’s automated braking, accelerating or steering on the driver’s behalf if the person behind the wheel fails to do so often because the driver is daydreaming or otherwise distracted.

“Someone needs to find a way to put it all in one package, especially when different safety technologies come from different suppliers,” said analyst Dave Sullivan of AutoPacific in Ann Arbor. “Whoever comes up with a solution, it will be a silver bullet.”

With researchers at the University of Darmstadt in Germany, the Continental system was created and installed in a 2013 Cadillac XTS, now known as the Driver Focus vehicle.

“This really excites me,” said Tejas Desai, head of Continental’s Interior Electronics Solutions.

Experts seem to agree that the work is imperative.

Each day, accidents associated with distracted driving lead to 10 deaths and 1,100 injuries, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Much of the blame falls on cell phone use, especially texting, but drivers are also distracted as they attempt to eat, drink, or adjust the stereo, heat or navigation system.

“It is good that people are thinking creatively about the distracted-driving problem because it’s not going away,” said analyst Rebecca Lindland of Rebel Three Media & Consultants in Cos Cob, Conn.

Drivers are distracted when trying to process too much — but also when they have too little stimulus to keep them from daydreaming, Desai said.

The industry has responded with technologies that alert drivers with an assortment of beeps and chirps or vibrating seats and steering wheels while taking evasive action such as slowing the vehicle to match the speed of the car ahead or providing a steering nudge to get back in the lane.

And this barrage of inputs is not just on luxury cars anymore. They are increasingly becoming mainstream, with features such as blind-spot detection on a Chevrolet Equinox or lane departure warnings on a Ford Fusion.

The concern is that the warnings be relevant and effective.

Continental and German researchers working on a larger project known as Proreta3 to keep driver awareness at optimum levels wanted a system that warns only when necessary and doesn’t make things worse by creating more distraction.

An alert driver crossing a lane to avoid a pothole doesn’t need a warning. A sleepy driver crossing a lane does.

“I want warnings to be relevant,” Desai said. “Right now, they’re not. I don’t want one more thing yelling at me, another chime or vibration not making me safer. I want driver focus where the danger is.”

Sullivan agrees.

“Cars are doing a great job of telling us when we’re doing something wrong, and many systems have been added in the last five years. There are sounds, lights, vibrations but there is not a clear way to reduce false positives or integrate the different systems into one warning now.”

Drivers have more parts of the car to pay attention to, Sullivan said. “Continental is trying to come up with a formula to bring it all together while reducing distraction.

Modifying the Cadillac shows the system works with existing vehicles and technologies while providing a showcase to solicit future business.

But Continental will also have a variety of drivers test the XTS over the remainder of the year to collect data on how best to tackle the problem of distracted driving. The supplier will compile monthly snapshots of the findings and use the data to keep refining the technology.

“It is not a science project,” Sullivan said. “Something like this is definitely coming. It’s a matter of fine-tuning.”

Most of the technology is not expensive and exists today; it was a matter of integrating it.

Two key components are prototypes.

One is an infrared driver analyzer camera in the steering column to monitor the driver’s gaze. The camera looks at the location of the eye sockets, nose and chin to assess the position of the head and the driver’s attention level. Warnings are suppressed when eyes and attention are in the right place. But when they are not, it’s time to activate the halo.

The halo ambient lighting is also new. It races around the interior of the vehicle and can change shape, pattern, direction and color: from passive white to yellow, orange and finally red when the situation is critical.

“I see lots of great things coming out of this in the next couple years,” Desai said.

Alisa Priddle, Detroit Free Press.