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Smart cars to warn drowsy-drivers

Volvo is trying to retain its image as a leader in safety with new technology designed to help drowsy drivers. Volvo and its owner, Ford Motor Co., released results of a  on this problem Wednesday at the New York Auto Show and announced plans for the technology to be included in Volvo cars and SUVs (sports / utility vehicles) before the end of the decade. Because the features are still several years from being offered in cars for sale, Ford was silent about the details for competitive reasons. It described a few different products that had been developed and were being . Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said they tested computerized optical scanning and a variety of warnings: a vibrating steering wheel, the sound of a car driving over rumble strips and a visual warning projected on the windshield. Researchers also tested a so-called "active" system in which the vehicle would actually adjust the steering  if it veered too far one way or the other. "We've been able to demonstrate that we have the ability to  a drowsy driver to a lane departure and improve their performance," said Jeff Greenberg, a technical specialist in Ford's research and advanced engineering department. "We're confident we can do it in ways that drivers will accept," Greenberg said. "The new system will be adaptive and intelligent."

Luxury carmaker Infiniti said last month it   offering lane-departure warning systems in vehicles later this year, the first use of such accident-avoidance technology in North American passenger cars. Employing a small camera, speed sensor and warning buzzer, the system is designed to alert drivers of unintentional   out of a designated traffic lane. It will be offered this fall on 2005 models of Infiniti's FX sport utility vehicle, then again next spring on the 2006 M45 luxury sedan.

Ford and others with devices and high-tech systems to help prevent drowsy driving for at least two decades. But Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Oregon, said he's not aware of any carmakers offering an instrument specifically designed to alert drivers when they're dozing at the wheel. Spinella said automakers have studied systems that use cameras to scan drivers' eyes or sense when they're loosening their grip on the steering wheel beyond normal. The challenge, he said, has been developing a marketable device without hitches. "The issue is liability," Spinella said. "It has to be literally 100 percent  before an automaker will use it."

Ford spent five months studying the problem of drowsy driving, which accounts for about 4 percent of all fatal crashes in the United States, or roughly 1,500 deaths each year. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says that 55 percent of fatal accidents in the United States are  vehicles veer from their lanes unintentionally, the result of inattention, drowsiness and other factors. The National Sleep Foundation says a 2002 poll indicated that about one-half of adult drivers – 51 percent of about 100 million people – said they'd driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year.

Ford and Volvo tested 32 people between November and March on a "full motion simulator" at a research lab. All agreed to stay up all night before the test and take no caffeine after 6 p.m. The next day, participants drove for three hours on a simulated darkened road. They used a variety of methods to stay awake,  singing, slapping their faces and drinking water. Three eventually drove off the road and "crashed."

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