Virtual back-seat driver could save your life

June 16, 1999

PULLING out into the fast lane when a juggernaut is bearing down on you is not one of life's best ideas. So it is just as well researchers are developing a car that can predict when you are about to make a dangerous move and help you avoid disaster. By observing your behaviour, the car can tell if you are going to turn, change lanes, brake or pass another car in the next few seconds, and if need be it will activate appropriate warning or override systems.

By shifting the emphasis of car safety away from the design of the vehicle itself and looking more towards the driver's behaviour, the developers believe that they can start to build cars that adapt to suit people's needs. The research was a joint project between Andrew Liu at Japanese car maker Nissan and Alex Pentland at the Massachusetts' Institute of Technology. They say tests using a driving simulator showed their system to be 95 per cent accurate at predicting drivers' moves 12 seconds in advance.

Liu and Pentland's system relies on the fact that simple driving behaviours can be broken down into long chains of simpler sub-actions, including preparatory actions. Even car passengers, after a little thought, should be able to predict what a driver will do next, say the researchers. To make its predictions, Nissan's smart car uses a computer and sensors on the steering wheel, accelerator and brake to monitor a person's driving patterns. A brief training session, in which the driver is asked to perform certain manoeuvres, allows the system to calculate the probability of particular actions occurring in two-second time segments.

The statistical technique behind the system is similar to that used in speech recognition software. When driving normally, the driver's behaviour is continually monitored for patterns. When a recognised pattern crops up, the system predicts the action most likely to follow. And since it continually updates the probabilities of these actions, it can adapt to the individual driver, getting more accurate all the time.

Some of Liu's earlier work involved tracking eye movements to recognise what a driver was doing at any one moment. In theory, he says, this predictive system could easily be adapted to monitor just the driver's eyes. This would mean an even earlier warning system, since the distinctive eye movements a driver makes when turning, for example, happen well in advance of the actual manoeuvre.
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Author: Duncan Graham-Rowe
New Scientist issue 19th June 1999

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New Scientist

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