VW Passat: Take a break

  • Rest break alert system monitors driver behaviour
  • Suggests coffee break if it thinks driver is too tired
  • Road test editor first to receive ‘warning’

I have driven many new cars that are fully loaded with all manner of kit for you to try out, and one of latest bits of tech that’s started to make a regular appearance on these events is driver fatigue warning.

The Volkswagen Passat is the first Parkers long-termer to include the technology that monitors the driver’s movements to assess their capacity to drive. It’s part of a Cruise Control option and if it thinks the driver is getting too tired a dashboard indicator in the shape of a coffee cup illuminates to suggest that he or she should take a break.

It’s a pretty complex system that records the driver’s inputs on the major controls such as the steering, braking and throttle, and if it thinks the person behind the wheel is getting erratic then the warning light will go on. Other more sophisticated systems have cameras that focus on the driver’s eye movement to assess their levels of fatigue.

Now, I do a lot of miles in a week. Each day I have a 150-mile daily round trip from London to Peterborough and I think this will be a handy piece of kit especially on the dark winter evenings. Usually, the journey home takes about an hour and a half and although I do get a little tired, particularly towards the end of the week, the warning light has not yet come on.

It has, however, shined its light for my colleague Simon McBride. He borrowed the Passat as his mode of transport for a trip to Heathrow airport for the international launch of the new SEAT Mii city car. After flying out he spent a night in Malaga and then the morning driving on the Spanish roads before taking a two-hour return flight back to the UK.

After collecting the Passat from the airport car park he started out on a journey to Manchester which would have taken him about three hours. After about two hours in, at about 9pm, the warning light went on, which suggests that either he was driving like an idiot or his high levels of fatigue had been detected by the system.

The coffee cup light came on, urging him to take a break.

He ignored it.

“I only had about 25 minutes of the journey left so I just thought it was pointless to pull over for a coffee,” Simon explained. “If I’d had another two hours to go I would have stopped.”

There is no legal precedent for people involved in accidents after they have ignored fatigue alert systems but the handbook is very clear about what might happen if you do. It says: ‘Never drive a vehicle when you are tired.’

No arguing with that then.

You can turn the system off, but that's not advisable. Besides, the novelty factor of a picture of a coffee cup lighting up is absolutely worth it. It suggests the car is doing its job and it also justifies that extra outlay for the Cruise Control option that is standard on SE and Sport models, but available on S and BlueMotion models for £265. 

There are some aspects that you do need to consider though. First of all the system doesn’t detect a so-called ‘microsleep’ i.e that you are so tired that you shut your eyes. Understandably, if you do veer off the road with your eyes shut there’s little the warning can do about that. Also the driving behaviour can only be monitored above 40mph and the warnings in the handbook also say that, ‘...in certain situations, the system may wrongly interpret intentional driving manoeuvres as lack of attention of the driver.’ In short it might not get it right on bendy roads, bad roads, when there are poor weather conditions, when you are driving erm… ‘sportily’ and if the driver has been distracted by something (like a dog crossing the road).

So, it’s a useful system but it’s not a complete failsafe. Regard it as a friendly mate sitting next to you telling that you need a break – he’s not perfect but he does have your best interests at heart.

Current mileage: 14,898 miles

Average mpg: 45mpg