The technology can detect precisely when the handover from the car to the driver should occur.
Volkswagen has filed a patent for a smartwatch-like device for drivers in semi-autonomous vehicles, with the device monitoring the transfer of driving duties from a vehicle to a person. Discovered by CarBuzz and submitted to the German Patent and Trade Mark Office, VW's document describes a device that can either be worn on the arm or even the fingers as a ring.
The device will include a sensor system that can detect acceleration, positioning of the hand/arm, and the time until the driver's hand reaches the steering wheel. Using this information, the car knows whether it should maintain, limit, or deactivate its hands-free driver-assistance systems - and precisely when to do so. Modern vehicles have used cameras and hands-on detection steering wheels to gauge driver awareness, but VW's device aims to address some of the shortcomings of such monitoring systems.
VW's invention exclusively mentions the challenges that occur with Level 2 systems, whereby hands-free driving is possible for short periods of time. Ford's BlueCruise is an example of such a system, but VW suggests that it can still be challenging for the vehicle to accurately monitor the time between a driver letting the car handle steering and when they resume control.
If the vehicle inaccurately determines this time period, disruptive actions like false warnings and unnecessary emergency braking can be initiated; these actions can irritate the driver or even create a new safety hazard. But by more accurately monitoring the transfer of driving functions between the person and the car thanks to the wearable device, VW claims it can overcome these issues.
The device with its sensors, including an accelerometer and/or position sensor, can be further set up to respond to specific driving scenarios or even individual drivers. For instance, some drivers may reliably respond quickly to taking over driving duties from the car, whereas others may be consistently slower to do so. The device can account for this with a different threshold value for each driver so that autonomous functions are activated or deactivated at precisely the right moment.
Other factors can also influence how long a driver takes to resume operation of the vehicle, such as a particularly bumpy road. Heavy vibrations can delay the driver's ability to resume operation of the vehicle, but the device's vibration sensor can once again pick up on this and send the relevant data to the car.
The wearable device's ability to interpret data can be improved when used in conjunction with vehicle cameras. If, for instance, the car is approaching a traffic jam, the device/camera may determine that a more immediate resumption of driver control is needed than usual. If necessary, braking can be initiated automatically when the sensors and/or cameras determine that the handover to the driver won't be completed quickly enough.
Despite VW's mention of Level 2 autonomy only, we can see how this wearable device could prove valuable at Level 3. VW itself said that the jump from Level 2 to Level 3 autonomy "is the largest technically speaking," as the vehicle can take over many more functions but requires driver intervention when necessary. In an interview with Inverse, Missy Cummings - a former senior safety advisor to the NHTSA - expressed concerns about whether drivers will be adequately prepared to take back control "both physically and emotionally," as they could easily rely too heavily on the car's automated systems.
If VW's design does what it says and can more accurately account for drivers who react quickly relative to those who don't, it could be one solution to the challenges of Level 3 autonomy. It's why Level 3 autonomy has taken so long to come to America, with Mercedes being the first to introduce the tech in America on its S-Class and EQS.
The other challenge is this: How many drivers will be willing to go through the effort of strapping a watch to their arm before each journey or quickly putting on a small ring when you're in a hurry? And if the device isn't worn, will some of the more advanced driver-assistance features simply not be accessible at all, or will they work less effectively?
There are as many questions as there are answers, and although VW's device may still be far from finding its way into your next ID.4 crossover, at least the automaker is acknowledging some of the shortcomings of current driver-monitoring systems and how they work with semi-autonomous vehicles, and searching for solutions that will ultimately create a more pleasant, safer commute.