Can a smart steering wheel reduce car accidents?

German engineers have a new tool to keep drivers awake, alert, and safe behind the wheel.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters/File
Traffic moves on the arrival level of Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Calif., November 21, 2012.

Sleepy behind the wheel? There's an app for that.

From seats that monitor heart rate, to a system that detects yawns, to an eye-tracking system that records the frequency and duration of blinks, sensing driver fatigue is the latest frontier in car safety technology.

Now, a German team has developed a new twist: a smart steering wheel that monitors drivers' grip to detect fatigue.

Embedded in the smart steering wheel is a strip of sensors that identifies when a driver is tired or asleep, according to the German engineering firm Hoffman and Krippner, which designed the technology.

In theory, alert drivers apply constant pressure to the steering wheel and move their hands along it. The smart steering wheel's sensors, made up of thin layers of foil, detect this pressure and movement as a series of short circuits, Gizmag explains. If drivers get drowsy, fall asleep, or lose consciousness, the pressure and movement on the wheel will both lessen.

"A microprocessor keeps track of the intensity, frequency and location of those shorts, and uses it to establish a typical driving pattern for the user," explains Gizmag. "When they deviate from it significantly, the car will then alert them to wake up and pull over."

The wheel won't be commercially available for years, say the engineers, but it already works with gloved, sweaty, or dirty hands, and detects even small changes in pressure quickly.

According to a 2005 poll from the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of adult drivers – about 168 million people – say they have driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year, and some 37 percent, or 103 million people, have actually fallen asleep at the wheel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. This results in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in monetary losses – which is why so many auto designers are interested in driver fatigue-sensing technology right now.

For example, Mercedes-Benz's Attention Assist creates a driver profile, and sounds a warning chime and displays a coffee cup icon when it detects a deviation from the profile. Ford's Lane Keeping System uses a number of factors to track a driver's alertness and flashes a "Rest Now" warning if necessary. And Jaguar is developing a Driver Monitor System that tracks the driver's face and eyes to reduce distracted and drowsy driving.

Jens Kautzor, CEO of Hoffman + Krippner, Inc., believes his smart steering wheel easily outshines competitor technologies. "Lane depart assist systems are very sensitive to dirt and dust," Mr. Kautzor told Design News. "Vibration and sudden bumps in the road can cause faulty signals in other systems, and camera-based systems can easily be bypassed by smoke or wearing sunglasses, or by nighttime."

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