Instituto de Biomecánica de Valencia (Biomechanics Institute - IBV) has worked on the development of a system with seamlessly integrated smart textiles, able to measure heartbeat and respiratory rate, to prevent driver fatigue and sleepiness at the wheel in the framework of the European project HARKEN.

This non-invasive sensor system measures heartbeat and respiratory rate embedded into the seat cover and the seat belt of the vehicle. According to the IBV Director of Innovation Markets in Automobile and mass transportation, José Solaz, "the variation in heart and respiratory rate are good indicators of the state of the driver as they are related to fatigue. So when people go into a state of fatigue or drowsiness, modifications appear in their breathing and heart rate; HARKEN can monitor those variables and therefore warn the driver before the onset of symptoms of fatigue."

Up to now, no system was capable of measuring those vital constants in a car in a non-invasive way.

The Harken device, developed by companies, universities and technology centres of the consortium, "is an innovative solution because it measures both variables on a scenario affected by vibrations and user movements, by means of intelligent materials embedded into the seat cover and the seat belt. The system detects the mechanical effect of the heart beat and the respiratory activity, filtering and cancelling the noise caused by the moving vehicle elements (vibrations and body movements), calculating the relevant parameters that will be integrated into future fatigue or somnolence detectors."

The outcome of this project is a fully functional prototype that allows anticipating the symptoms of fatigue associated with breathing and heart rate, and monitors this physiological activity, with the aim of reducing the number of accidents.

The system is based on three main components: the seat sensor, the seat belt sensor and the signal-processing unit (SPU), that processes the sensor data on real time. Besides, thanks to its integration possibilities, they are invisible to the user.

Closed tracks test

José Solaz explained that "the device has been tested by users in closed track tests, in order to prove its effectiveness under real-life conditions".

Thanks to its short time-to-market scope, Project Harken will shortly allow to have vehicles in the streets in order to run tests in real traffic scenarios. Preliminary tests "have led to positive and reliable results, thus, Harken help in the near future to reduce accidents", added Solaz.

A serious road safety problem

Traffic accidents caused by fatigue are an important social an economical problem in the EU. There were more that 1.3 millions of traffic accidents in the EU with 1.5 millions injured people and 38.000 deceased in 2008. Indeed this type of accident is the third cause of deceased and disability.

eSafety Forum says that more that 8% of traffic accidents are related with fatigue. That means around 100.000 accidents and 125.000 injured people per year in the EU. This proportion increased with the fatal accident victims, in which driver fatigue is the responsible for 20% - 35% of accidents.

The measures to avoid fatigue may be directed to drivers, enterprises, infrastructures, and vehicles. Advertising campaigns, infrastructure improvements, law enforcement, and in-vehicle systems that alert fatigued drivers, are some of the measures that have been developed during the past years.

Fatigue in-vehicle detectors may reduce such a problem and may save thousand of lives per year, as well as many millions Euros in health costs. "Therefore component suppliers in the automobile sector are working together in order to solve the fatigue detection problem, although nowadays we cannot measure yet the useful physiological driver's information, which is a crucial factor to evaluate them. This is why this research is so important," explains José Solaz Innovation Market Director of the Automobile and Mass Transport Area in IBV.