Coming soon ... car that can tell if you're stressed or drunk

A Northern Ireland company is at the forefront of developing technology to make the roads safer by creating cars that can empathise with how their driver is feeling.

The Ford Focus RS concept car is being worked on by NI company Sensum
The Ford Focus RS concept car is being worked on by NI company Sensum

Belfast-based Sensum is working on a concept car with Ford which uses sensors to track its driver’s emotions and creates external visuals based on those feelings.

Dr Cavan Fyans, 33, chief technology officer at Sensum, explained the purpose of the experiment: “One side of this project is research into how people emotionally respond when they’re driving. The other is the promotional, fun side to create a concept car.

“When the car is turned off it just looks like a standard Ford Focus RS. Once the system is running there are visualisations on the exterior created by 200,000 LED lights which change as the driver’s emotions change.”

Sensum CTO Dr Cavan Fyans

Dr Fyans said the technology could be further utilised to make the roads a safer place.

He said: “One of the things we work on is developing technologies and algorithms for detecting when someone is stressed, fatigued, distracted or maybe even intoxicated.

“With the new self-driving cars it would mean the car can be empathetic to how the human is feeling and react accordingly.

“For example if the person is stressed the car might take over a bit of control from them or change the environment in the cockpit. Or if someone is having a medical episode, the car can pull over safely and call an ambulance.

The Ford Focus RS kitted out with exterior LED lights which display the emotions of its driver

“We’re rapidly moving into an environment where more and more of our cars are going to be semi or fully autonomous.”

Dr Fyans – a software developer with a doctorate in sonic arts – said he could see a time when people living in city centres will be able to summon a self-driving car to take them into work, in the same way you would call a taxi.

He added: “I’m not saying we’ll get rid of traditional cars entirely, so many people just love driving. But then you’ve got people who only use vehicles for their practicality. There’s going to be a play off between the two.

“In terms of road safety there is a tangible problem. There is evidence of the large number of accidents caused by stress and intoxication and we can build a system that understands those emotions and reacts to them. We can save a lot of lives and make the roads safer.

Sensum CTO Dr Cavan Fyans

“There’s obviously going to be a trust and control issue as most people wouldn’t want their car telling them not to drive because they’re too stressed or intoxicated.

“It is possible that the car could warn other road users that its driver is drunk and to take care, perhaps using external LEDs. Or the car could say, ‘you’re too drunk to drive – why don’t I drive home for you?’.”

The Ford Focus RS kitted out with exterior LED lights which display the emotions of its driver