DEARBORN, MI – Ford researchers want more than 20 drivers to fall asleep at the wheel over the coming weeks. It's all completely safe – and is in the interest of improving vehicle safety.
It's the latest research into driver drowsiness and accident avoidance using the Ford VIRTTEX driving simulator. VIRTTEX stands for VIRtual Test Track EXperiment. Ford is the only North American automaker with a full-motion-based driving simulator like VIRTTEX.
The research findings will be used to develop new safety technology, slated to debut first on Volvo vehicles, known as the world's safety leader – and then possibly later on other Ford Motor Company brands.
A Deadly Problem
"Driver fatigue and falling asleep while driving is a deadly problem," said Jeff Greenberg, staff technical specialist of safety research at Ford, and manager of the VIRTTEX lab. "What we are attempting to understand is what happens when a driver falls asleep at wheel, and when this scary situation occurs, how best to keep these drivers from hurting themselves and others on the road."
According to U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates, drowsiness accounts for about four percent of all fatal crashes – more than 1,500 deaths each year. It is a major cause of catastrophic accident and injury. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 police-reported crashes annually – about 1.5 percent of all crashes – involve drowsiness and fatigue as a principal causal factor.
"These are often not minor accidents when they occur," said Greenberg. "When someone falls asleep at the wheel, the vehicle often leaves the lane and the roadway – followed by a major crash or rollover. Our goal is to better understand these incidents and investigate whether new technologies could be developed that might detect this situation and help prevent it from happening."
Ford and Volvo researchers are investigating ways to sense when a driver is falling asleep and beginning to veer out of the vehicle's lane. After ascertaining that in fact the driver is falling asleep, the team is trying to develop technology to help prevent that unintended lane departure.
Planning the Tests
Prior to the start of the study, the experiments had to be designed, tested and constructed – and test subjects had to be selected. Using VIRTTEX, North America's premier driving simulator, the subjects would be allowed to fall asleep during the test in complete safety.
In September, a Ford Taurus, which had starred in an earlier breakthrough driver distraction study, was moved out of the VIRTTEX test chamber, and a Volvo S80 was moved in. The piece of technology most visible to the driver is the addition of a high-resolution camera on the center console pointed at the drivers face. It is meant to monitor the eyes and eye movement. A computer calculates the percentage of eye closed versus eye open – to sense if the driver is falling asleep.
"Our intent is to make sure this system, when developed, works right," said Greenberg. "There is nothing more annoying to a driver than false signals – false beeps, buzzes and vibration – when the driver is not falling asleep. False signals would could nag the driver to the point he or she just turns it off. And a system that is turned off is not serving any purpose whatsoever."
To make sure the test works properly, Ford technicians earlier filled in for the test subjects – staying up all night and falling asleep at the wheel.
When Ford researchers were confident that the test procedures and machinery were designed right – it was time to hire the test subjects.
Selecting the Subjects
More than 300 potential test subjects were interviewed with a detailed 15-page questionnaire. Researchers were looking for a varied group of men and women that represented likely Volvo customers in terms of income and vehicle desire.
A group of 24 men and women were selected, ranging in ages from 21 to 70. They will be asked to stay up all night, the night before the test, and take no caffeine after six p.m. that preceding evening. A sensor placed on a watchstrap will be worn the day before the test to verify that the test subject does not fall asleep.
Performing the Tests
Early the following morning, after a sleepless night, the test subject is driven to the Ford Scientific Research Laboratories. At six a.m. the test subject enters the VIRTTEX simulator and then drives for up to three hours on a simulated darkened country road.
What will happen during the test and the responses of test participants is to be seen. But the VIRTTEX driving simulator has the ability of forcing lane deviations and can put objects in the roadway to gauge driver response.
New Safety Features May Result
"VIRTTEX is a great tool to test driver behavior efficiently, adequately and safely," said Robert Hansson, manager, Vehicle Controls, Volvo Cars. "It provides important help in the evaluation of alternative technologies in order to come to grips with the drowsiness issue. While we are in the pure research stage at this point, we are optimistic that important findings and developments lie ahead."