Wake Up! Hi-Tech Cars Nudge Drowsy Drivers

Waiting for the caffeine to kick in on my early morning commute, I felt my eyelids grow heavy. One moment I was focused on the road, and the next I awoke with a start, shocked to find that I had temporarily dosed off and drifted towards the next lane. In that moment, I easily could have become a drowsy driving statistic. According to conservative estimates by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driving while drowsy results in 100,000 police-reported crashes each year.

Fortunately, I was sitting in gridlock and avoided what could’ve easily been a low-speed fender-bender. But the incident was quite literally a wake up call. What if I had been speeding down the highway? What if there was a way for my car to tell me when I started to doze off? In response to this growing problem, the Ford Motor Company announced that it will begin introducing limited “lane keeping” technology into its vehicles.

Ford’s lane keeping technology operates with a camera mounted to the rear-view mirror. When the system is activated, it monitors the road’s lane markings to determine whether the vehicle is drifting in or out of a lane. If the turn signal is off and the system detects lane drift, then the power steering will automatically engage, turning the car back towards the lane’s center. The lane keeping technology is part of Ford’s “Driver Alert System,” which is accompanied by a warning message and a chime to warn drivers to “Rest Now.”

According to conservative estimates by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driving while drowsy results in 100,000 police-reported crashes each year.

In theory, Ford’s lane keeping technology is a great idea. However, initial evaluation has found some performance problems. Driving into direct sunlight, especially when the sun is at a low angle, prevents the camera from effectively monitoring the lane markings. Heavy rainfall and windy roads have also proved challenging. Finally, the system only works when the car is moving more than 40 mph, which would not have helped me in this morning’s momentary doze.

Price quotes on cars with the technology included are not yet available. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to endorse the technology, citing additional testing requirements, the enhancement does have the potential to save lives.

Toyota, Lexus and Mercedes have all introduced lane keeping technologies similar to Ford’s. These motor companies call the technology “lane keep assist” (or a variation on this name). The “assist” is meant to reflect the fact that the technology is not a standalone driving safety solution and also limit liability.

But even if the lane assist technology worked perfectly, would it make driving safer? J. Christian Gerdes, the director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, has been testing driverless cars since the early 1990s that employ similar features to the lane assist technology. He is not convinced that the technology will make driving safer. Citing ‘risk accommodation,’ Gerdes says he is concerned that as vehicles are made safer, drivers will only respond with riskier behavior, knowingly driving while drowsy thanks to false confidence that the safety system will protect them when they fall asleep.

What do you think – will lane assist technology enhance car driving safety? Would you purchase a car with lane assist technology?

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