Your Car Could Be Spying on You. Good!

Drivers who have already gotten on the wrong side of existing driver-monitoring systems know that their warnings and wailing can be annoying, and they sometimes cry wolf. Automotive engineers choosing when the systems buzz or beep, and how, have to strike a tricky balance.

Experts say the key to building great driver-monitoring systems is to create software that doesn’t just tell a driver when they’re doing something wrong but supports their attention. “It’s about defensive driving and avoiding conflict altogether versus avoiding crashes once you’re in a conflict,” says Greg Fitch, head of safety research at Android Auto, Google’s in-vehicle app. That could mean sounding quiet but escalating tones, not a high-pitched beep, when it sees you looking off to the side—when you may be watching for pedestrians. Perhaps the system doesn’t totally disengage automatic lane-keeping when you use the wheel to hug the side of a lane but instead shares control.

Driver-monitoring systems are too new for there to be exhaustively proven rules for what work. How best to support flawed, easily distractible people while they’re driving is still being debated by regulators, automakers, and academics. The answers may vary for different people, companies, or cultures. “Especially in Asian countries, they’re a bit reluctant to deploy loud notifications, because you might be driving other people in the car,” says Zijderveld of Smart Eye. “If an alarm goes off, other people will hear that, and they will assume you’re a bad driver.”

Some safety experts argue that much of what automakers are putting out right now isn’t good enough. Last year, the US safety group Consumer Reports began to give extra safety points to vehicles with partially automated features that also have effective driver-monitoring systems.

CR’s testing found that some automakers’ systems allow vehicles to travel for up to 30 seconds—half a mile at 60 mph—without the driver’s hand touching the wheel. (Its most recent testing gave top honors to Ford’s BlueCruise, which the company says can change lanes, reposition a car within a lane, and drive hands-free on 130,000 miles of North American highway—and includes an eye-tracking camera that alerts when a driver stops paying attention to the road for just a few seconds.)

The US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety last year created a “safeguard list” of technology to include in driver-monitoring systems, including monitoring both driver gaze and hand position and using quickly escalating alerts to regain drivers’ attention if they don’t respond to an initial warning. (The group has yet to release its first set of ratings.) How a system interacts with a driver can be more crucial—and difficult—than how it monitors them. “You have the vehicle monitoring the driver and verifying that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. But so what?” says Alexandra Mueller, a senior research scientist with the group. “It’s about how the vehicle responds to the information.”

Still, people who study how new car technology interacts with humans say those little driver-facing cameras have big potential and could help make all drivers safer. “A lot of people don’t know they’re bad drivers, unless maybe they get honked at or get a ticket or get in a car crash,” says Greg Neiswander, research and testing lead for Android Auto. If driver-monitoring technology is able to give people the right sort of feedback at the right time—a momentous task, it turns out—“you can theoretically make people more aware drivers, better drivers,” he says.

In the future, “the question is not, can we monitor the driver? but can we support them more efficiently?” says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at MIT who leads the Advanced Vehicle Technology consortium, which brings together industry experts and academics to study how people interact with automated driving features. Implemented the right way, the systems could not just stop people from doing bad stuff behind the wheel but help them to be actively good.

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