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Ford Developing Biometric Driver Stress Detectors To Improve Safety

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Ford evaluating driver workload to better understand how wellness relates to safety

Ford evaluating driver workload to better understand how wellness relates to safety

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Driving can be stressful, and stress is a distraction. Driving can also be boring, and that can be distracting, too. So what can be done about it?

Ford is working on a system that integrates various biometric measurements like pulse, galvanic skin response, and breathing rate to determine the driver's "workload," a concept that relates to attention and performance behind the wheel in a curious manner.

Basically, when workload--the amount of attention and input required from the driver--is too low (i.e., when the driver is bored, say driving straight interstate for hours on end) they are more prone to make mistakes, often through simple inattention, because the act of driving doesn't require much attention until something goes wrong, and then the attention requirement can't be met. If workload is too high, the same holds true in a different manner; the driver simply doesn't have enough capacity to give attention to everything that requires it, meaning some important information may be missed, resulting in a decrease in performance or an accident.

In between these extremes, there's a sweet spot of workload and driver performance--and Ford aims to keep track of your vitals to help keep you in that sweet spot, by providing alerts and limiting interruptions as appropriate.

The in-car system will gather the information for the alerts from its onboard sensors, leveraging systems like blindspot detection and lane-keeping assist to detect traffic flow and quantity nearby, adjusting its alert status for the environment. Other sensors, like throttle position and steering position evaluate the driver's responsiveness and attention to what the sensors are seeing and react with alerts accordingly.

In addition to alerts about potentially unseen traffic conditions, the system can keep the driver from being interrupted by phone calls or text messages when full attention is required by the conditions. It does this by leveraging the SYNC and MyFord Touch systems when paired with the driver's cell phone to automatically apply the existing (manual) "Do Not Disturb" settting.

Ford developing biometric driver sensors to improve safety

Ford developing biometric driver sensors to improve safety

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How does Ford measure things like heart rate, respiration rate, and galvanic skin response? Through sensors built into the steering wheel and seat belt. Like common gym exercise equipment, metal plates built into the steering wheel can sense pulse and skin conductivity. A sensor build into the seat belt can sense the driver's breathing. In addition, infrared can sense changes in body and skin temperature relative to the cabin temperature, reactions that might indicate a change in alertness or agitation, especially when taken in concert with the other sensors' information.

For now, these technologies are still in the research stage, though Ford does have working prototypes. No time frame for such a system's arrival in production vehicles has been set, but with the increasing penetration of these once high-tech sensors into mainstream vehicles, it makes increasing sense, both in terms of cost and safety, to leverage them into a coherent whole.
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