Tech’splaining: What is a Driver Monitoring System, and How Does It Work?

  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
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According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2017, 3,166 people died due to distracted driving. Another 795 people died due to drowsy driving. Injuries caused by distracted and drowsy driving accidents measure in the hundreds of thousands, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Clearly, this is an epidemic. To address the problem, car companies and their suppliers are developing ways to reduce the number of drowsy and distracted drivers on the road. By installing driver monitoring systems in modern cars, the intent is to identify when the driver is not paying attention and remind the driver to be alert at all times.

What is a driver monitoring system?

Warning alert from a driver monitoring systemWhen a driver monitoring system determines that you are drowsy or distracted, it issues an alert recommending that you take a break. (Photo: Volvo)

A driver monitoring system uses a charge-coupled device camera equipped with infrared sensors. This camera, frequently mounted to a car’s steering column, employs infrared LED detectors that track the driver’s eye movements, monitor head position, and even measure eyelid activity.

When the system determines that a driver is not paying enough attention to the road, or is getting sleepy, it issues an alert and recommends taking a break. Some network with a car’s advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS), and warn a driver to pay closer attention when potentially dangerous situations develop.

Lexus was the first automaker to install a driver monitoring system in a vehicle. Other companies, such as Volvo, quickly followed suit while improving on the first systems. Now, more than a decade later, many automakers offer driver-monitoring systems as standard equipment, typically bundled with ADAS technology. Depending on the design, modern driver monitoring systems may also employ data from other sources. These include electric steering and lane monitoring systems, as well as vehicle speed.

Cadillac Super Cruise, among the most advanced semi-autonomous driving technologies available today, relies on one of the most sophisticated driver monitoring cameras. From a location at the top of the steering wheel, it intensely monitors both head position and eye movement – even when the driver has sunglasses on.

Future driver monitoring systems will use facial recognition technology

What a driver monitoring system seesFacial recognition technology is the next frontier in driver monitoring systems. In the future, you might be able to control your vehicle’s controls using nothing but eye movements. (Photo: Volvo)

The next frontier in driver monitoring systems is facial recognition technology. In addition to observing you as you drive, it will recognize you and alter the driving environment to specific seating, climate, and infotainment preferences.

Subaru is among the first to employ facial recognition in its vehicles. The company’s DriverFocus system reminds you to pay attention if you’ve looked away from the road for more than three seconds. It networks with Subaru’s EyeSight suite of ADAS, which automatically enters a heightened state of sensitivity when DriverFocus is in alert status. DriverFocus is available in Subaru’s Forester, Legacy, and Outback models.

Expect more facial recognition systems in future cars. For example, the Faraday Future FF 91 ultra-luxury electric vehicle will have four facial recognition cameras. They will help tailor individual seating zones to personal preferences.

Ultimately, driver-monitoring systems may allow drivers to control vehicle functions using nothing but eye movement. For now, though, get enough sleep before getting behind the wheel. And put the phone down when you’re on the road.

Thousands of lives depend on it.


About the Author

  • Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience serving in automotive editorial leadership roles with Autobytel, Edmunds, J.D. Power, and Tribune Publishing. A married father of four, Chris is based in the Los Angeles suburbs and believes fuel cell electric vehicles will power the future.

can be reached at christianwardlaw@gmail.com
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