Continental shows two camera systems. Both work in concert with emergency braking and collision-avoidance systems that are in cars today and come with their own sets of sensing devices, including cameras and radar.

Closer to production, the simpler of the two interior camera systems detects head movement. The other more futuristically tracks precise eye movement. 

In a test-track car, Continental demonstrates the less-complicated system carrying a lugubrious working title: “Adaptive Autonomous Emergency Braking Plus Driver Attention Monitoring (Driver Focus).” It’s likened to a co-pilot.

“The critical point is recognizing what the driver is doing,” Muharemovic says. “Is he distracted?” 

The camera is encased atop the steering column. The car is equipped with light strips running across the inside of the front doors just below the side window. When activated, the moving lights function as an early-warning system in the event of an impending emergency situation the driver doesn’t readily sense but the car does.

“If the driver is looking forward, the camera sees that, and we make the assumption he is attentive,” Muharemovic says. “So we give him the benefit of the doubt until the last possible moment.”

To show that in action, the engineer whose work centers on autonomous-vehicle development drives about 15 mph (25 km/h) eyes-forward toward an obstacle representing anything from another car to a pedestrian. Because Muharemovic doesn’t brake for it, the car does, harshly and at the last moment, but stopping just inches in front of the object.

In a second run-through, Muharemovic this time looks to the left rather than ahead as the car closes in on the obstacle. The collision-avoidance system detects an impending crash, while the camera detects inattentive driving. The autonomous brakes kick in earlier than before. This time, the car stops sooner and less abruptly than when the camera sensed Muharemovic had his eyes on the roadway and presumably knew what was ahead.

“We calculate attention and inattention levels,” he tells WardsAuto. “There is a good algorithm model for those calculations.”

If a distracted or inattentive driver is looking right or left, the blue-light strips on the doors activate in a forward-motion pattern to signal the driver of an accident in the making. An audible alarm goes off, too.

“The light motion is important, but we’re still deciding ultimately how it should move and what color to use,” McClain says. “So there’s work left to be done with that.”

Then there’s the issue of selling the pre-production safety feature to automakers and the marketplace. “Using it as part of overall ambient lighting might be a way of getting this system in the car,” he says.

The second, more involved camera system is not developed to the point that Continental demonstrates it in a moving car on the track. Instead, the supplier uses an indoors simulator that includes a driver’s seat, steering wheel and instrument panel.

Three dashboard-embedded cameras follow the eyes of the person in the driver’s seat. The cameras can pinpoint exactly where the driver is looking. A warning is activated if the driver is looking one way and collision-avoidance sensors detect an imminent danger in another direction.

“We can localize the warning to wherever the driver is looking,” Brian Saloka, a senior software engineer, says of possibilities.

He emphasizes the camera system is designed to avoid or mitigate an accident, not admonish drivers for taking their eyes off the road.

“It can also detect drowsy driving,” he says. “We can apply algorithms like blink rate and head bobbing to gauge whether the driver is falling asleep.”

If nod-off occurs, the system would send an alert. It could take many forms. The one on the simulator uses driver-seat-embedded air bladders. Those typically are intended to massage backs of premium-car owners.

“But we can use the air bladders to ‘tap’ you on the back, basically saying, ‘Wake up,’” Saloka says. He cites studies indicating such pressure-point stimulation also increases circulation in the head and extremities, thus helping rouse sleepy drivers.

“It’s hard to believe, but these nice creature comforts can add to vehicle safety,” he says.

Insurance companies and NHTSA like the safety system using multiple cameras aimed at the driver, Saloka says. “But consumers might say, ‘Why am I paying for something to watch me?’ So we have to come up with something that will get them to say, ‘Yeah, I really want this system.’”  

Toward that end, Continental touts its potential ability to use facial recognition to personalize seat, mirror, steering-wheel and radio-station preferences for various drivers.

“There’s also theft detection,” Saloka says. “You can take a snapshot of authorized drivers’ faces and have the system recognize as many people as you want. If they’re not registered by facial recognition, the engine won’t start.”

McClain adds, “You have to show the added benefits and find ways to get this in the car. Once it’s there, it’s about safety.”