Subaru's Driver Focus detects distractions to make roads safer

by Jim Kerr . Mar 01 2019

Distracted driving is dangerous. The RCMP estimates 80 per cent of collisions are related to distracted driving and 25 per cent are due to cellphone use.

Across Canada, provincial regulations place heavy penalties on distracted driving, with the most severe in Ontario, where using a hand-held device such as a cellphone can result in a fine of up to $1,000, a three-day driver’s licence suspension and three demerit points. A second conviction within five years ups the ante to a $2,000 fine, six demerit points and a seven-day licence suspension, while a third offence will result in a $3,000 fine and 30-day licence suspension.

Driver education on the dangers of distracted driving will help, and the severity of the penalties may deter others, but there is also help from technology. Subaru has introduced Driver Focus on the 2019 Forester and it has just been awarded the best new innovation in safety award from the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.

It started in 2013 with the introduction of Eyesight — a twin-camera, forward-facing system that looks at the road ahead to provide four features: adaptive cruise control to maintain a safe distance from vehicles ahead, pre-collision braking to slow or stop the car completely when it senses a panic-braking situation, pre-collision throttle management to cut power when starting out if a hazard is detected in your way, and lane departure with sway warning alert to help you keep the vehicle in its lane. While no data is available for Canada, in Japan, Eyesight is being credited with a 61 per cent reduction in pedestrian collisions, and in the U.S., a 41 per cent reduction.

Now Subaru’s Driver Focus adds an interior camera that works in conjunction with Eyesight to keep the driver focused on what they should be doing — driving! An infrared camera is mounted in the dashboard centre display stack and “maps” the driver’s face features. It really is a digital map rather than a picture, and the facial recognition software can also be used to personalize the vehicle for up to five drivers by automatically adjusting the mirrors, seat and climate control settings for each driver.

Privacy is paramount and the facial recognition data is stored only in the vehicle. It cannot be downloaded or shared and can be deleted if desired.

During operation, the Driver Focus software monitors the driver’s eyes. It tracks drowsiness by monitoring the amount of time the eyes are closed and the slowness of blinking. If the driver looks away from the road for more than three to four seconds, possibly due to a cellphone or other distraction, the system will warn the driver to pay attention. It’s like having a co-driver helping to keep you alert. It also works with Eyesight to provide additional warning if there is an oncoming vehicle and Driver Focus software determines you are looking away from the oncoming vehicle.

There are some limitations to the system. The cameras must be able to see ahead and the driver’s eyes. The forward-facing cameras are located inside the car above the interior rear-view mirror, but can be blocked if the windshield is very dirty, and some polarized sunglasses may affect monitoring of the driver’s eyes, although it will work with most sunglasses.

The Driver Focus system can be turned off, but I can’t think of a reason to do so. Even when turned off, driver drowsiness is still monitored so it can warn you if you are beginning to get sleepy.

Driver Focus is a distraction mitigation system, helping drivers to pay attention to the road and making it safer for all of us.

james.kerr@sasktel.net