Business / Corporate | Regional voices: Chubu

Nagoya-based firm develops tech to let autonomous cars know if driver is holding the wheel

Chunichi Shimbun

Sumitomo Riko Co., a Nagoya-based auto parts maker, has developed a system that can determine whether a driver is holding the steering wheel, a piece of technology that could prove to be indispensable for semi-automated cars.

The firm aims to start commercial production of the system — designed to enable drivers to switch from autonomous driving to manual control safely in case of emergencies — in the 2020 business year.

The so-called Smart Rubber sensor, made of anti-vibration electrically conductive rubber material, can determine which part of the steering wheel a driver is holding by detecting a change of pressure.

The auto industry is currently engaged in fierce competition to develop technology to achieve conditional automation — Level 3 on the Society of Automotive Engineers International’s scale to 5.

In Level 3, cars are self-driving but a human driver must take over the wheel in emergency situations or if the system requests that the driver intervene. But self-driving mode will not be turned off unless the system determines that the driver is ready to take the wheel to avoid an accident.

With the technology that’s currently available, however, computers have had a difficult time determining whether pressure applied to the rubber on the steering wheel was from the driver or from something else. For example, tire forces transmitted to the steering wheel could be mistakenly determined to be a driver’s hands depending on road conditions.

But the firm’s newly developed system can improve the accuracy of detections because it can determine whether the driver is holding the steering wheel with one hand or both hands, and how firmly.

The revised Road Traffic Law that allows Level 3 autonomous driving cleared the Lower House plenary session on May 28, paving the way for it to come into force in the spring of next year.

Sumitomo Riko’s system, exhibited for the first time at Automotive Engineering Exposition 2019 Yokohama in late May, attracted a lot of attention.

“We hope it will be adopted by carmakers in the development of autonomous cars,” said a Sumitomo Riko official.

The firm developed the SR sensor in 2011 by utilizing its leading anti-vibration rubber material technology aimed at reducing vehicle vibrations transmitted to the interior of the car.

Sumitomo Riko is also working on developing another system that could be installed in the driver’s seat and determine the health condition of the driver by detecting his or her heart rate and breathing pattern.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published May 31.