Stephen Cole of Siler City, N.C., was consistently getting only four hours of sleep a night. His daily schedule included staying out late and waking up at 4: 30 a.m. for a 12-hour job shift.
After two months, his schedule caught up with him.
While driving home from work one day in December 1998, at a spot where the road narrows north of Pittsboro, N.C., he fell asleep at the wheel. His Toyota Camry crossed the median, drove over a cliff, flipped while in the air and smashed into a tree.
Cole's experience is typical with one exception: He walked away from the accident with only minor bruises
As the industry strives to make its products safer, many automotive suppliers are developing technology to prevent this type of accident. The innovations are radical and technically sophisticated, but they could begin appearing commercially on vehicles this year.
The majority of new developments are tracking devices that use cameras to detect lane markers. One of these products that will hit the market soon is called Autovue, developed by Odetics ITS of Anaheim, Calif. It will be available as an option on Mercedes trucks in Europe early this summer, according to Francis Memole, vice president of vehicle sensors for Odetics.
Freightliner Corp. announced in November that it will offer the Odetics system on its Century Class S/T, Argosy and Columbia trucks mid year.
Autovue consists of a complete image-processing system mounted on the dashboard. Using images from a small video camera, the system looks for edges where the pixels become significantly brighter. It then compares this data to computer algorithms and identifies the lane markers.
Autovue generates a rumble strip-like sound if the vehicle strays outside the lane markers.To prevent false alarms, the warning is disabled if the turn signal is activated or if the vehicle is below a certain speed, set by the automarer at the factory.
Similar systems are not far behind. SafeTRAC from AssistWare Technology in Wexford, Pa., is in the prototype stage. The system was developed jointly with researchers from Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
SafeTRAC relies on an algorithm that analyzes weaving within the lane. It uses the weaving to compute a drowsiness 'score,' and displays the score on an LED display. If the score is too low, a warning sounds.
'It's more of a warning that you may be getting tired and may want to take a break,' said Todd Jochem, vice president of AssistWare.
AssistWare has research and development contracts with five North American truckmakers and has been discussing noncommercial applications with GM, Ford, Toyota and Volvo, Jochem said. AssistWare expects SafeTRAC to be widely available this year.
The industry is still sorting out what type of sensor technology to use to monitor lane weaving. Some developers are using so-called CMOS chips. SafeTRAC is unique in using the rival CCD video technology. CMOS, or complimentary metal oxide semiconductor, is a newer and less-expensive alternative. But, said Jochem, 'it can't 'see' as well at night, which is obviously very important in a drowsy-driver system.'
Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. is one of the electronics suppliers using CMOS cameras. Hyan Yen, in charge of Delphi's lane-departure warning system, believes the CMOS approach eventually will be able to handle a wider variety of lighting conditions. He said potential users are evaluating Delphi's system, but there are no contracts with automakers.
Eaton Corp. also has a lane-tracking device in development that could be offered with its radar-based VORAD collision-warning system as early as 2001. Allen Coloske, a business analyst at Eaton, said the company will carefully observe how the trucking industry reacts to the Odetics system.
Behind the wheel
Other suppliers, rather than monitoring the road, are focusing on the driver.
Last summer TRW Inc. signed an agreement with Biosys AB, a medical technology company based in Gothenburg, Sweden. The supplier plans to develop an automotive application for a patented Biosys drowsiness-detection system.
According to Udo Nenning, marketing director of TRW Electronics in Europe, the product will use sensors located in the driver's seat that measure heart rate and breathing rhythms. But measuring drowsiness in a moving, vibrating car is much more difficult than measuring it in a hospital bed, Nenning said.
'This thing is so critical, you don't want to have something that works at a 50 percent rate,' he said. 'It will take another two years or so before this is ready to be marketed.'
At this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Johnson Controls Inc. displayed a 2000 Lincoln SL sedan with a drowsiness-detection and alert system. Using a sensor developed with Circadian Technologies, a Cambridge, Mass., sleep research laboratory, the system looks for tiny 'micronod' head movements associated with drowsiness. The alert system is integrated with a seat-massage unit to replicate the feeling of driving over rumble strips.
Cost, cost, cost
A few obstacles still block widespread implementation.
'The real problem with all of these is the cost,' said Delphi's Yen.
For instance, Freightliner is offering the lane-tracking system as a $1,995 option.
Eaton's Coloske said anything over $1,000 'will probably be a hard sell.'
As for the passenger-car market, Delphi spokesman Milton Beach said: 'We've got an idea of what consumers would pay for something like that, and it's under $1,000. The rollout would start on the luxury cars, and then the technology would make its way to the smaller cars.'
Then there are legal complications.
'There are liability issues,' said Coloske. 'The algorithm has to be robust so it doesn't give a false alarm or no alarm.'
AssistWare's Jochem said there are some conditions where the technology just can't work.'If you're in a blinding snowstorm where you can't see, then the system can't see,' he said. 'It's hard to convey that information to people. In the U.S., the legal environment is such that you have to be careful about how you portray your product.'
Some driver-fatigue experts are concerned that devices like these may do more harm than good. They claim alerting devices may encourage drowsy drivers to rely on the devices to keep them awake.
'If all you're enabling them to do is keep driving, it's just making a bad problem worse,' said Pat Waller, former director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. 'If you're nodding off, you need to get off the road.'
Biosys President Olle Magnusson said the TRW/Biosys system, like all safety systems, will 'require driver responsibility.'
Added Magnusson: 'We can only assist and inform the driver.'
Bill Chapin is a special correspondent in Evanston, Ill.