CHICAGO – Pavlov demonstrated that a stimulus, repeated over and over, can trigger behavior by way of conditioned reflex.

Likewise, German supplier Continental suggests the same theory can be applied to the automotive realm in addressing today’s scourge of the motorways: distracted driving.

At the recent auto show here, Continental rolled out a prototype Driver Focus vehicle intended to train motorists not to text, apply lipstick, read a map, sift through the glovebox or look backward to give a crying child a pacifier while the wheels are turning.

The concept, installed on a Cadillac XTS, consists of a tiny infrared driver-analyzer camera placed above the steering wheel to detect facial position. If the driver is looking left, right, into the backseat or down at a cell phone, a light bar nicknamed the “halo” (because it circles the entire interior) will illuminate and guide the driver’s eyes back to the center of the road.

The bar of light-emitting diodes is positioned just below the glass along the upper door trim and below the windshield and will first flash white when the driver momentarily looks away from the road.

But when the eyes have faced away for an extended period, the light turns red and even flashes if necessary, particularly if the active-safety devices such as lane-departure warning, adaptive-cruise control and forward-collision mitigation (technologies also supplied by Continental) detect the likelihood of an accident.

Whether white or red, the “halo” light bar is designed to capture the attention of the driver’s eyes and physically draw them back to the center of the road, in the same way eyes would follow “the bouncing ball” on a video screen to highlight the words of a song.

“We know we all do things we probably shouldn’t do sometimes,” Tejas Desai, head of interior electronics solutions for Continental North America, tells WardsAuto in demonstrating the technology.

“And when that happens and you’re in a dangerous situation, this alerts you and more importantly guides you back to a safe environment.”

The key enabling technology is the infrared camera that locks on to facial features, particularly the eye sockets, nose and chin, in determining if the driver is drowsy, distracted, fiddling with the radio or looking straight ahead. The camera will work if the driver is wearing glasses or even a patch on one eye.

The U.S. Department of Transportation says 10 people die every day and more than 1,100 are injured in accidents caused by driver distraction. Continental bills its Driver Focus concept as the “ultimate human-machine interface” because it can help train drivers about dangerous behavior behind the wheel.

Continental says human error is the single cause for about 80% of traffic accidents, a statistic that will need to be addressed if governments and many auto makers are serious about reducing traffic fatalities to zero.

The supplier developed the HMI concept with Germany’s University of Darmstadt, which already has conducted vast research on driver awareness.

“That’s why we have the cooperation with the university – to look at how people react and what different things they react to and how to get their focus back in the quickest possible way,” Desai says.

The concept car was completed one month ago at Continental’s technical center in Auburn Hills, MI, and will be taken around the country for testing by drivers of all ages in different parts of the country.

“We need to get real user data,” Desai says. “We will put users through various scenarios and monitor the speed at which we can get their attention back.” Test drives will be conducted on private tracks or under simulated conditions. For now, the research focuses strictly on the U.S.

Another goal of the project is to track how the brain responds to warnings about traffic hazards, whether it is a flashing light on the instrument panel, a chime, a vibrating seat cushion or a gentle tug on the steering wheel if the vehicle is straying from its lane.

As these active-safety technologies become common, particularly in luxury cars, some drivers complain the systems are too sensitive and convey so much information that they are tuned out, or even turned off when possible.

Continental’s challenge is to make the light bar helpful rather than a source of sensory overload that eventually is ignored.

“Yes, we have a lot of sensors and safety systems to warn you when you will come into a potentially dangerous situation that will try to take over and help you,” Desai says. “But at the end of the day, you’ll still have conditions where it’s not able to do everything for you.”

Desai says he hopes the Driver Focus system can be intelligent enough to detect the difference between a driver who is intentionally steering toward the edge of a lane to avoid a pothole and one who is not paying attention and about to collide with another vehicle.

“I only want the system to tell me things that are relevant,” he says. “If I’m looking at the road and it’s Michigan pothole season, that means I’ll be skirting the lane a lot. I know nobody is around me, and I know I’m crossing the lane. I’m watching the road – stop beeping at me.”

By the same token, he appreciates a system that will grab his attention if he is distracted and begins drifting, potentially endangering another driver.

Ultimately, the goal of the technology is to draw the driver’s gaze to a critical situation so he can take corrective action. “To bring those two things together, we need a lot more interaction between the different systems of the car,” Desai says.

The technology isn’t designed to make it safe to text while driving, Desai says.

“It’s never safe to text while driving.” Still, he says this research project is important because it could lead to a safe method for people to remain connected while driving.

He says the system could be ready for production within four years.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com