Autos

Teaching Cars to Read Our Emotions


It may be years before we’re all zipping around the roadways in driverless vehicles. But cars are already gaining some control over the behavior of their owners. Several automakers and research groups are developing facial recognition technology that will allow cars to read and influence drivers’ emotions and alertness levels. And a team of engineering students at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, has even developed technology to detect road rage and defuse drivers’ anger by playing soothing music.

“Music is proven to be very helpful in calming people down,” says Dipshikha Goyal, project manager for the group. The technology relies on data from three sensors that measure the driver’s heart rate, the pressure of the driver’s grip on the steering wheel, and the driver’s facial expression. “If the [heart rate and grip] values are above the normal threshold, we trigger the camera and check if the person is actually angry,” explains Goyal. To use the technology, each new driver must first train the camera by demonstrating a normal face and an angry face.

When road rage is detected, the car will automatically select your top favorite soothing song from your smartphone playlist by using a mood music app such as Music Square, says Goyal. Those who’d rather not have Pachelbel’s Canon start up every time some reckless fool cuts them off on the highway can also opt for alternate calming methods. “A person can choose whether he’d prefer to have music come on, or to have the AC turn on, or have the windows roll down,” says Goyal. “Some cars nowadays even have massage systems.”

The Waterloo team is in the process of patenting its technology and preparing to approach carmakers about installing the road rage detectors.

Several car companies, including Volkswagen and Ford, have already introduced driver attention and drowsiness systems, which use sensors and cameras to monitor factors like a driver’s steering habits, ability to remain within a lane, and time at the wheel.

Some are also working on facial recognition technology. French automaker Peugeot Citroën is collaborating with researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, to create a video sensor that will be able to monitor faces to detect driver emotions. Volvo is enhancing its existing drowsiness detection system with a sensor that relies on small LEDs to help track drivers’ facial expressions and eye movement.

Volvo spokesperson Malin Persson says there are several ways to nudge a sleepy driver back to attention, such as using sounds, vibrations, light, or even fragrance. “If the driver does not wake up, [a vehicle's safety system could even ensure that it] comes to a safe stop,” Persson writes via e-mail.

The Swedish carmaker is also looking into using facial recognition technology to monitor drivers’ anger levels, though rage is more difficult to detect than drowsiness. “Different people have very different expression when it comes to anger,” writes Persson. “Sleepiness can be detected by eye movements.”

As our cars learn more about us, so undoubtedly will insurance companies. Some have already started offering discounts to drivers who install gadgets that track driving habits.

Road rage—an affliction so common that it affects nearly eight out of 10 mild-mannered Canadians—could soon become very expensive. That said, Goyal of Waterloo recommends cuing up songs such as Pure Chill Out, or Weightless, a song scientists say is more relaxing than a massage. “As soon as I hear that music, I go to a zone,” says Goyal. “I feel very, very calm and composed.”

Cwinter
Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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