Smart Steering Wheel, courtesy Guttersberg Consulting GmbH (GTB)

Smart Steering Wheel, courtesy Guttersberg Consulting GmbH (GTB)

Inventors have developed a technology that makes it possible for a steering wheel to detect when the driver is fatigued, as Ben Coxworth writes for Gizmag. The system, developed by Hoffman and Crippler (a German engineering firm with offices in Alpharetta, Ga.) and Guttersberg Consulting, is based on the pressure a driver places on the steering wheel, and the driver’s typical hand movements on it, Coxworth writes. “If someone should fall asleep, have a heart attack or otherwise lose consciousness, that pressure will lessen and their hands will move less,” he adds.

The system tracks the driver’s grip via a thin “Sensofoil” strip of sensors that is embedded beneath the leather or other covering on a vehicle’s existing steering wheel, to the inside rim of that steering wheel, Coxworth writes. The strip is composed of thin foil layers that have a weak electrical current running through them, Coxworth writes.

The pressure from a driver’s hands on the wheel causes the Sensofoil strip’s layers to come into contact with each other, creating a short circuit, Coxworth writes. He notes that the effect is similar to the way a resistive touchscreen works. A microprocessor establishes a typical driving pattern for the driver, based on the intensity, frequency, and location of the short circuits, Coxworth writes. When the system detects a significant deviation from a driver’s typical pattern, the car will alert the driver to wake up and pull over, Coxworth writes.

Founder Denis Güzelocak says in a video that the idea for such a system was born when a “microsleep” came over him as he drove on a highway — a situation that could have ended badly. Safwat Shokr, a mechanical engineer who worked with Güzelocak on the technology, says in the same video that it was challenging to add sensors to the small space between the inside of the steering wheel and the leather that covers it.

Working in a garage for months, the two experimented with many materials and components. They were able to build a functional model after patenting the idea, Shokr says. Dr. Nico Grove, head of the Institute for Infrastructure, Economics, and Management, then joined their team.

“Regardless of whether I steer with a glove, or with one hand, with one finger, or even with my knee, the system would continuously monitor the activity of the driver,”Güzelocak says in a video. This system would also be able to activate a vehicle’s lane departure warning system or place the car on autopilot, Güzelocak says in the video. If a driver experienced a health problem, such as a heart attack, the autopilot would safely park the car, Güzelocak says, and GPS would alert authorities of the situation.

The team is creating a prototype that will work in automobiles, Shokr says. They plan to present it to automakers, Güzelocak says in the video. Grove says that the applications of the invention are not limited to cars. “The patent can be implemented in every machine which is steered by the human hand, to reduce accidents,” he says in the video.

Coxworth suggests that it will be a while before this comes to market:

A rep tells us that commercialization is still ‘years away,’ and that it will then likely first appear in luxury vehicles before trickling down to lower-priced cars.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even if a drowsy driver does not fall asleep at the wheel, driving is compromised because fatigued drivers are less attentive, have slower reaction times, and are not as able to make decisions as when they are well rested. As many as 5,000 to 6,000 fatal car accidents are caused annually by drowsy driving, CDC writes. The center urges drivers to pull over to rest or change drivers if they are tired.

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