Watching the alpha and beta waves of one’s brain undulating across a screen while gripping a steering wheel, is one of the more bizarre experiences of automotive R&D. But that is what JLR (Jaguar Land Rover) is putting its mind to as it delves deep into how to eliminate the effects of driver fatigue or inattention using highly subtle techniques.
“Our project is called Mind Sense and has the ultimate goal of developing a system to detect whether a driver is concentrating, alert and focused, or distracted; we are doing so by monitoring what is going on in the brain,” said Dr. Laura Millen, Human Factors Researcher and leader of the project. “We can’t expect drivers to put on a headset carrying sensors so part of our research project is to look for non-intrusive ways to collect the same data.”
The result is what is probably the world’s most extraordinary steering wheel, which forms part of a novel test rig: “We are evaluating a prototype with four sensors on the back of the upper part of the wheel’s rim.”
Readings are presented on a large screen (this is for research only and definitely not something that would appear on a production car’s head-up display!) ahead of the rig, indicating alpha and beta brainwaves.
"The brain continuously produces four or more distinct speeds or frequencies of brain waves," explained Millen. "Although these different brain waves are produced simultaneously and in combination, a person’s state of consciousness depends on the dominant (strongest) frequency band at each time. During sleep, the brain produces dominant slow delta waves. During daydreaming or in the twilight of sleep, the brain produces dominant theta waves that are slow but a bit faster than delta. When the brain is calm and mentally unfocused—for example, when a person relaxes with their eyes closed—the still faster alpha waves are dominant."
To test levels of concentration, the alpha and beta waves are “scored” by an analysis system on a zero to 100% scale as the rig driver watches a screen showing a virtual drive on a winding road.
There are many questions to be resolved, including how to warn a driver (possibly steering wheel or pedal vibration), and later the project will embrace inputs from neuroscientists.
JLR R&D Director, Dr. Wolfgang Epple, said: “Even if the driver’s eyes are on the road, a lack of concentration or a daydream will mean he or she isn’t paying attention to the driving task.”
Complementing this research into a driver’s mental state is the monitoring of his or her physical health. JLR is developing a “wellness seat” that can detect stress, or some serious health issues, via heart- and respiration-rate monitoring. For research, heartbeats and breathing rates appear on displays. Again, alerting methods that don’t conflict with other attention-getters need to be refined.
Voice alerts, such as those used in cockpits/flight decks for aircrew, would seem to be a possible solution, but JLR’s researchers did not comment on this option.
JLR’s R&D operation spreads very wide and not surprisingly covers the “autonomous car,” a phrase Epple said the company prefers to the emotive “driverless car”: “Our vision is to offer a choice of an engaged or autonomous drive. Ultimately, this means that a car could drive itself if the driver so chose, and have intelligent systems that can be adjusted for a more engaging, involved, and safer drive.”
The company’s Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) will enable autonomous driving and make “real” driving safer and more enjoyable, he explained.
Supporting this, together with active cruise control, lane keeping, autonomous emergency braking and other systems will be the facility to make a multi-point 180° turnaround without driver input, and an autonomous, driver-out-of-car facility that could cope with 99% of a Land Rover product’s off-road capability. This would enable a driver tackling very difficult situations to inch forward a vehicle remotely by use of a mobile phone with simple controls. Experiencing this at JLR’s Gaydon R&D center as a Range Rover passenger with no driver aboard, progressing over an obstacle to a very high angle of attack with a front wheel in the air, proved interesting.
The system could also be used by any JLR product to remotely extract a car from a hemmed-in parking slot.
Epple believes such technology will prove a major aspect of public acceptance of autonomous vehicles because it will engender trust, much as park distance controls have done. They are all part of an integrated whole and an evolution of technologies that he defines as “autonomous progression.”
He sees “a degree” of autonomy entering the market soon after 2020 for use on dual-carriageways, followed progressively by lesser roads, and with a JLR fully autonomous vehicle a reality around 2025.
This development will be supported by radar, LIDAR, and stereo cameras. Epple stated that JLR required levels of cognitive ability in three components: perception, motion planning, and navigation/localization. This would give a JLR vehicle autonomous capability not only on roads without surface warning markers but also without roadside infrastructure including deserts.
Such a solution has been dubbed by JLR the Solo Car, able to take care of itself and incorporating reduced-cost LIDAR sensors (JLR has a program to achieve this) working with a range of new and different sensors. However, where possible JLR is extrapolating the capability of existing sensors, known within the company as “sweating the assets.”
“Motion planning describes the vehicle’s understanding of where it is at any given point, where it has to get to, and what it needs to achieve that,” explained Epple. “Navigation/localization describes the vehicle’s ability to navigate to the destination but also understand on which part of the journey it is currently traveling.”
In handing over to a driver at completion of what may be a lengthy autonomous journey phase, a vehicle could check that the driver is awake and paying attention, which is where Mind Sense and the Wellness Seat enter the equation.
Other R&D systems to support or alert the driver include haptic accelerator pedals that will vibrate or need added torque to operate, to get attention for such things as cyclists or pedestrians entering the car’s vicinity. This Automotive Engineering editor found the pedal vibration warning technique effective but added torque disconcerting; there are situations when accelerating can be as necessary as braking, and a throttle pedal requiring an extra shove in a looming potential emergency was unconvincing.
JLR has also developed a predictive touch prototype that tracks hand movements in front of an infotainment screen to predict which button a driver will press. This is to reduce “eyes out of cockpit” times by about a fifth. A static demonstration was convincing but a demonstration was required of the system in a car on a poor surface with the vehicle experiencing unpredictable body movements, particularly off road.
Other JLR programs include the self-learning car (claimed as a “world first”) that can “know” what radio stations are a driver’s favorite when driving to and from a workplace and what level of driving seat massage is required and when.
However, though JLR works towards ever more technologically comprehensive products, it has no plans to replace the driver, quipped Epple: “The occupants of our cars will not become cargo!”