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The joint engineering center of Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. in Washtenaw County is partnering with the University of Michigan to study “highway hypnosis” — a mental state in which a person can drive great distances without recollection of having consciously done so.

According to the Detroit News, Engineers from Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center Inc. based in Michigan will work with graduate students and professors from U-M’s College of Engineering and School of Kinesiology measure driver brainwaves using electroencephalograph (EEG) sensors, which has the potential to detect early on when a driver is becoming drowsy. A physical and sound alert tied into an onboard system could then jolt the driver awake.

“Current methods of detecting driver drowsiness are noting changes in head position and eyelid activity, both of which require a longer time to determine potential danger; whereas EEG sensors may detect driver drowsiness prior to the driver’s behavioral change taking place,” the Hyundai-Kia technical center said. The two Korean automakers are controlled by the same conglomerate.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,331 people were killed in distracted driving-related accidents in 2011, and NHTSA estimates 387,000 were injured.

How many fatal crashes might be preventable if we can remove 'drowsy' drivers from our nation's highways? If it takes a jolt to wake them up, isn't that R&D investment worth it? Haven't we all felt that moment when we catch our head bobbing sharply back to attention from an inattentive instant caused by extreme fatigue?

“Combining the unbridled enthusiasm and free-spirited thinking of graduate students from a world-class university with the talented technical minds found within HATCI, we can explore new ways in which to approach significant technological hurdles in the automotive industry,” said Dr. Sung Hwan Cho, president of the technical center.

Umesh Patel, senior director at U-M’s Business Engagement Center, said, “These new research collaborations with the Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center demonstrate the multi-disciplinary nature of automotive research and have the potential to catalyze further research at the University of Michigan as well as to inform our educational mission.”