By Sanjiv Sathiah
Sunday, May 13th, 2012 @ 6:58 am
 
Thanks to findings from its TopFitTruck study, Mercedes-Benz is taking a unique approach to tackling the issue of driver fatigue in its passenger cars of the future called "Active Comfort.' The TopFitTruck research program investigated ways in which vehicle comfort and driver conditioning could improve driver health and well-being on long-haul trips.

Mercedes is now aiming to take its findings from the TopFitTruck into its passenger vehicles in the near future. Part of its solution is to design cars that can help induce sleep behind the wheel of a parked car so drivers can take quick a power nap (20 minutes of deep sleep taken in a safe location). The upshot is not only more alert drivers, but also drivers who drive with more control and therefore also use less fuel. Fatigued drivers, Mercedes' study found, drive more erratically and use more fuel.

The concept of Active Comfort revolves around the five senses, all of which are constantly receiving information and which affect our state of body and mind. Underpinning the Active Comfort concept are visual effects, acoustic, smells, haptics and thermo-reception. Lighting can be used to create a relaxing or stimulating environment, while acoustics including music selection can have similar effects. Quiet vehicles with excellent noise isolation also reduce fatigue.

Smells can be released into the vehicle; menthol can increase alertness on longer trips, while an ionizer provides a constant stream of fresh air. A hot stone and massage function built into more comfortable seats can prevent stiffness and relax neck muscles. A vehicle's climate is also very important -- if it's too warm it can induce unwanted drowsiness, but a properly monitored temperature coupled with cabins that enhance airflow can also help optimize driver alertness.

If a driver needs to take a power nap, the same Active Comfort systems can kick in to help get the driver to sleep sooner, and thereby get them back on the road quicker, but alert and ready for the driving task. The audio system can play sleep inducing music, the vehicle's atomizer can switch from menthol to a relaxing orange fragrance, while the driver reclines fully and enjoys a massage from the system embedded in the seat.

"The possibility of making effective use of "power napping' for recuperation purposes will play a key role in the Active Comfort concept from Mercedes-Benz," said the company. "Some of the ideas explored in this vehicle [TopFitTruck] will soon feature on board series-production vehicles from Mercedes-Benz,' it added

Driver fatigue, or drowsy driving, has been highlighted by the NHTSA as a major factor in car crashes. It estimates that in the U.S., drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths. It has implemented education campaigns, recommended road treatments including rumble strips, and has also investigated driver alert systems to address the issue.

Mercedes' Active Comfort approach tackles the issue quite differently and offers an intriguing alternative way forward in addressing this critical road safety issue.