The DAISY system developed by Sphericon reads data from a car’s steering system to determine whether a driver is properly focused.A cell-phone can be a lifesaver, but using one while driving could kill you, and other people too. And that’s only one of the menaces – ranging from drowsiness to kids squabbling in the back seat – that can distract drivers.

For years, safety engineers have sought to develop an automated system to warn drivers who stop responding to changing conditions on the road. Various devices, none of them successful, have attempted to monitor the movement, or lack of movement, of the driver’s eyes, or whether the car is veering off the highway or out of its lane – and then to send some kind of alarm signal to the driver.

Now engineer Dan Omry says he has found the solution. His Herzliyah-based start-up Sphericon recently became one of the few non-American companies ever to get a grant – amounting to $80,000 – from the U.S. Department of Transportation, to finalize simulator testing of its device. And Sphericon is now negotiating with two major automakers – one of which, The Jerusalem Report has learned, is General Motors – on contracts to develop a working prototype. Omry declines to disclose how much Sphericon’s principal investors, Groeneveld Groep B.V. of Holland, a worldwide automotive supplier, and Israel-based Gintec Active Safety Ltd., have put into the project so far.

Called DAISY – for Driver Alertness Indication System – the Sphericon device reads data from a car’s steering system to determine whether a driver is properly focused. If he isn’t, explains Omry, a research scientist who has worked with Israel’s Defense Ministry, the U.S. National Aviation and Space Administration and in private industry, the attached alarm – anything from a loud beep to a flashing light, or even a device that shakes the driver’s seat – is triggered. “We can start a shower if that’s what the customer, or the safety authority, tells us to do,” says Omry.

Doing something, though, is simply vital. Up to 25 percent of traffic accidents stem from driver inattentiveness or drowsiness, according to research conducted in the state of Virginia. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that drowsy driving causes an estimated 100,000 accidents a year. And that comes at a cost of $12.5 billion, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

To emphasize DAISY’s strengths, Omry first sketches out, one by one, why previous detection systems have not been successful. For example, he says, a camera that monitors the driver’s eye movements is useless if he or she wears sunglasses, or turns his or her head. A video camera set up to identify deviation from lanes on the highway won’t work if the markings are obscured by snow or if the highway isn’t marked properly. Devices that look for deviations in the driver’s steering pattern, he goes on, are similarly ineffective. “It’s not enough to see what the driver does,” he says, “you have to know why he does it. If you just see the driver’s pattern, you don’t know if it’s changing because he’s tired, or because conditions on the outside” – such as bumps or other imperfections on the road surface, the weather or the light – “are changing.” Trying to understand driver behavior without taking all these variables into account, he adds, is futile and bound to be ineffective.

The DAISY on-board data-processing system, which will be sold to the automaker for “a few dozen dollars per unit” to be fitted on the steering system when the car is being factory assembled, works because it integrates the two sets of variables, Omry asserts – the alertness of the driver and the changing road conditions. And it is able to determine which of these is prompting changes in the driving pattern.

Among the key achievements of Sphericon’s research team – four engineers, working under Omry’s supervision – was finding a means to differentiate between a movement of the wheels caused by a physical change in the road, and the measurably slower movement prompted by a driver’s turn of the steering wheel. Feeding those kinds of differentials into DAISY’s computer chip enables it to ascertain whether the driver is fully alert.

Even assuming that it tests well and is picked up by one or more of the big manufacturers, DAISY won’t be available in commercial motor vehicles before 2006, says Omry. Sphericon anticipates that developing and testing a prototype will take about a year and a half. After that, it will have to be converted into a device that can be mass-produced.

Todd Dollinger, the firm’s American-born marketing consultant, says he expects that, if everything goes according to plan, DAISY will be fitted first into luxury cars and trucks – for very different reasons – and only later as a standard accessory in every new Chevy, Ford or Fiat.

Luxury cars because, in cars as in many fields, new products tend to show up first in top-of-the-line models, whose buyers are willing to pay the additional cost. And trucks because enhanced safety is particularly appealing to trucking companies, which would expect the relatively small additional expense to prevent much larger losses from destroyed equipment or liability to other motorists.

Over time, Dollinger says, the hope is that DAISY will indeed become a standard item, perhaps one that is mandated by law. “That’s reasonable to expect for a couple of reasons,” he says, pointing out that other safety items, like air bags or seat belts, are increasingly being required by law. He anticipates that such a move would be backed by “the insurance companies as well, who act almost like a regulatory body in their own right, and tell you you won’t have insurance without it.”

For the slender, rather reserved, Omry, 60, who spent much of his working career in the defense establishment, widespread use of his safety innovation would be especially rewarding. “Over the years,” he says, “I have worked mainly with products in the military defense area. It’s nice now to be working with something that saves lives, rather than endangering them.”