Cars that watch you watch them steer
The automobile, in American life, has long been a hallmark of freedom. A teenager’s first driver’s license offers freedom from Mom and Dad. A new car and the open road bring the freedom to chase the American dream. But as more technology creeps in to help drivers, so, too, will systems that eavesdrop on and monitor them, necessitated not by convenience but by new safety concerns.
Cameras that recognize facial expressions, sensors that detect heart rates and software that assesses a driver’s state of awareness may seem like superfluous flights of fancy, but they are increasingly viewed as part of an inevitable driving future.
At upstarts like the electric car company Byton and mainstream mainstays like Volvo, car designers are working on facial recognition, drowsy-driver alert systems and other features for keeping track of the people behind the wheel.
The most immediate impetus: concerns about the safe use of driver-assistance options like automatic lane-keeping that still require drivers to pay attention. And when truly autonomous vehicles finally arrive, the consensus among automakers and their suppliers is that new ways will be needed to check on drivers and passengers to make sure they are safe inside.
“It’s really taken off from no car monitor to tactile monitoring to taking a look at your eyes,” said Grant Courville, a vice president at BlackBerry QNX, which creates in-dash software systems. “I definitely see more of that coming as you get to Level 3 cars,” he added, referring to vehicles that can perform some self-driving functions in limited situations.The feature is part of the car’s Super Cruise system, the first hands-free driving tool to operate on select United States highways. The camera tracks a driver’s head position and eye movements to ensure that the person is attentive and able to retake control of the car when needed.
Similar concerns about BMW’s semi-autonomous systems prompted the German carmaker to add a driver monitoring camera in its 2019 X5 sport utility vehicle. The video camera is mounted in the instrument cluster as part of BMW’s Extended Traffic Jam Assistant system, part of a $1,700 package, that allows the car to go autonomous — with driver monitoring — in stop-and-go traffic under 37 miles per hour.
“It looks at the head pose and the eyes of the driver,” said Dirk Wisselmann of BMW’s automated driving program. “We have to, because by doing so it empowers us to add more functionality.”
Automakers understand that tracking technology raises privacy issues, so BMW does not record or store the ahd car monitor information, Mr. Wisselmann said.
Affectiva collected a variety of driver information during the test, measuring elements like the amount of grip on the wheel, throttle action, vehicle dome camera, facial and head movements. It then compared that information with what was happening around the car to determine how much trust the driver had in the semi-autonomous system and the perceived level of cognitive load.
This scenario is closer to becoming reality than you may think, and although vehicle camra get all the headlines, most drivers will experience something like it long before they can buy a car that drives itself.
Such systems, usually relying on a driver-facing camera that car rear view monitor and head movements, already have been deployed in tens of thousands of long-haul trucks, mining trucks and heavy construction vehicles, mainly to recognize drowsiness, alcohol or drug use, and general distraction.