February 28th, 2011
By: Craig Howie
Stepping into a Ferrari’s sleek cockpit is enough to set anyone’s pulse racing. But what if that was a bad thing? Italy’s most illustrious motoring marque is working on an in-car system that monitors a driver’s mental state behind the wheel, according to a British car magazine. Effectively, future mind-blowing Ferraris may also read a driver’s mind.
The idea behind the device is thaat Ferrari drivers may get just a little excited — go figure — and this heightened state could lead them to drive more dangerously. The way it works is that a series of in-cabin sensors will monitor a driver’s heart rate, blood pressure, facial reactions and brain activity. The sensors will act to increase safety by detecting not only a state of excitement but also by monitoring a driver’s alertness, or indeed tiredness, by way of their blink rate. The car’s performance is then automatically adjusted through the car’s stability control systems.
Some car manufacturers like Volvo already include so-called heartbeat sensors in their cars, though these are to detect if an intruder is hiding in the back seat. Stability and traction control systems in most new performance cars (and increasingly mid-range vehicles) frequently override driver reactions if they are deemed to be unsafe. GM and Ford recently unveiled their plans for cars that adjust automatically to factors beyond a driver’s control including road and traffic conditions.
According to Autocar, Ferrari has filed a series of global patent applications that state: “Drivers tend to miscalculate — in particular, overestimate — their driving skill and, more importantly, their psychophysical condition, with the result that driver-selected dynamic vehicle performance simply reflects the driver’s wish, as opposed to the driver’s actual psychophysical condition and proficiency.”
It continues: “The biometric sensors may comprise a piezoelectric measuring device for measuring the driver’s respiration, a device for measuring the driver’s blood pressure and heart rate, a television camera for monitoring the driver’s eyes (blink rate) to determine the driver’s alertness, a device for monitoring the electric activity of the driver’s brain, a device for recording the driver’s surface temperature and a device for recording the conductivity of the driver’s skin (to determine the degree of perspiration).”
While stopping short of suggesting that the car ultimately will drive itself, Ferrari’s ingenuity takes the concept of driver and car connectivity to a new level. Although Ferrari says the technology will be “non-invasive,” drivers presumably will be able to monitor their own performance by feeling out the car’s responsiveness. Effectively, the car’s performance will be a measure of their own. Spooky, huh?
Questions remain in terms of legal implications should a car that’s had its performance electronically downshifted be involved in an accident. There’s no word yet on whether the cars would include a sensor to detect driver alcohol intake. And of course, we’d also ask what’s the point of owning a Ferrari whose performance could change, quite literally, in the blink of an eye, without the driver being able to control it, save pulling over for a quick rest.
Paul Green, a Driver Interaction research professor at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, told AOL Autos that the challenge carmakers face is to make a monitoring system that is both reliable and inexpensive. He predicts such systems will one day be commonplace on trucks for long-distance driving but wonders if it’s something a typical Ferrari buyer would want in their car.
“If I buy a Ferrari I want to have fun. Why would I want something that affects its performance?” he said.
Alongside monitoring fatigue, he said that it could be useful in monitoring first-time buyers’ reactions or to forensically measure driver reactions in the moments before a road-rage incident or high-speed crash.
“To measure heartbeat is simple, people do it in laboratory studies, but monitoring when people start to close their eyes could be a better indicator of fatigue. The one that’s most promising is the camera that looks at the face and eyes. It can not only detect drowsiness but also detect the driver being distracted,” he said.
Earlier this month GM gave an early peek at its plans for a car and driver interaction at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. By collecting road and traffic data and then aggregating the data from many cars, as displayed on its EN-V concept, GM believes it can build an accurate picture of a driving environment and its cars can react accordingly. Ford engineers recently told AOL Autos of the importance of a car interacting with the “ecosphere” around it, describing it as a key part of its strategy going forward.
No matter how this all plays out, Ferrari’s research is a sign that drivers in future will be much more connected to a car and its environment than merely parking their behinds in the driver’s seat.Driving by the seat of your pants may become a thing of the past.