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Carol Burnett and Automotive Safety

Carol Burnett and Automotive Safety
by Roger C. Lanctot on 03-07-2016 at 12:00 pm

American television viewers of a certain age will remember the Carol Burnett Show and its star, Carol Burnett, and her customary ear tug at the end of each show. TV Guide tells us the “ear tug first made famous during the 1967-79 run of CBS’s Carol Burnett Show was a message to her grandmother, a way of saying, “Hello, I love you.”‘ Burnett later added her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton, as an intended recipient of the greeting.

I was reminded of the Burnett gesture while visiting with Fujitsu Labs executives at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. This team of researchers has come up with what they call FEELythm, a sensor intended to be attached to the ear of a commercial truck driver.

Introduced commercially more than a year ago, the FEELythm wearable sensor detects driver drowsiness based on pulse using a proprietary algorithm developed by Fujitsu. The device can also connect to digital tachographs and link to fleet-management systems for real-time monitoring and guidance.

The objective is to improve safe-driving management by predicting dangers related to fatigue, stress and tension and plotting those findings on a hazard map, the company says. Fujitsu claims that human error “not attributable to driving violations or skill has accounted for approximately 67% of all traffic accidents in recent years.”

The device is intended for commercial drivers including everyone from taxi drivers to long-haul truckers. The device has a battery life of up to five days and is capable of giving audio and physical alerts to those drivers. Fujitsu says the device is actively in use and the company’s sales goal for the device is 70,000 units over three years.

The FEELythm device comes to my mind in the context of the latest contradictory report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in the U.S. IIHS researchers report that owners of Honda’s with lane departure warning systems were frequently turning those systems off, perhaps in reaction to the annoying warnings which can be activated when a driver is making a lane change without activating the turn signal.

“Lane Departure in Cars Gets Turned Off”

The IIHS report is significant for two reasons. First, IIHS had previously reported in 2012 that its research showed that cars with lane departure warning systems saw increased claim rates rather than reductions. Second, the new finding is in keeping with an ongoing theme promoted by IIHS that only active safety systems, that actually take control away from the driver, can be shown to reduce insurance claims.

“Crash Avoidance Features Reduce Crashes, Insurance Claims Study Shows” – IIHS

What this means to car buying consumers is that IIHS, which is funded by the insurance industry, is withholding its endorsement of safety systems such as lane departure warning. Ultimately, IIHS is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Much of its research favors features such as automated braking and adaptive headlights, but the organization stops short of advocating that insurers offer discounts to consumers buying cars with these features.

It is actually quite difficult to find a U.S. insurer willing to reduce your insurance bill for buying a car laden with advanced driver assist systems. This is in contrast to Europe, where discounts for buying cars with such systems are widely available – just ask Volvo!

(It is worth noting the significantly lower crash and fatality rates in Europe though it is unclear whether this is due to better roads, better mass transit, higher licensing standards, or more expensive gas.)

The lane departure warning research takes the analysis a step further suggesting that driver warnings and alerts may not be enough – and, in fact, may be sufficiently annoying that drivers turn them off. The recommendation from IIHS is for either cleverer sensor integration or involuntary operation of these safety systems.

(My personal recommendation is a connected car system tied to a usage-based insurance program that would reward the driver for keeping the system turned on – something that could be verified by monitoring.)

The IIHS finding is significant in the context of the USDOT’s pursuit of a mandate for inter-vehicle wireless communication or V2V. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has strongly hinted at its intention to mandate a wireless device to broadcast vehicle location between cars. Such a system will generate alerts and warnings, the very same alerts and warnings that IIHS finds are annoying to drivers – maybe even distracting.

This isn’t the only safety-related agenda item where NHTSA and IIHS part company. The USDOT, at the direction of the US Congress, has mandated back-up cameras, yet another technology drivers are likely to misuse or abuse. But no one would argue these systems should not be adopted. In the same way, it is better to promote blind-spot detection and lane departure warning, even if some customers turn them off.

In the end, IIHS is clearly advocating for automated driving. Anything less is likely to fail in the eyes of these researchers. The human factor will always be the fatal flaw.

The irony is that the more automated driving becomes the less insurance consumers will need. Maybe this explains the IIHS skepticism. Could it be that IIHS is rejecting and failing to advocate for the adoption of safety systems in the interest of insurance industry self-preservation? Insurers, it seems, are simply fed up with humans driving cars.

In this context it is hardly a surprise that Fujitsu would see fit to affix a sensor to the ears of drivers of commercial vehicles. As Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said at TechCrunch in 2010: “Your car should drive itself. It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.”

More articles from Roger…

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