Camera watching you drive? Monitoring tech grows as regulators battle distracted driving

It will be important for carmakers and regulators to ensure the camera systems are used only for real-time monitoring, not recording. But Abuelsamid said there’s just no other way to cut down on distracted driving, including drivers using their phones. — Unsplash

New cars are packed with sensors and cameras these days, and among the newest locations for one is inside the rearview mirror, pointed backward towards the driver and passengers.

Magna International, the Canada-based auto supplier with its US headquarters in Troy, took several years to develop a driver and passenger-monitoring infrared camera and electronics system that’s hidden inside the mirror.

“The problem we’re trying to solve is distracted driving,” said Nathan Pastoor, a global product manager for the company.

In the United States, the most recent year with available data was 2022, during which some 3,308 people were killed and 289,310 were injured in crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Michigan, 15,441 crashes involved a distracted driver in 2022, resulting in 57 fatalities.

Magna’s is far from the only type of driver monitoring system out there.

Carmakers including AB Volvo, Subaru, General Motors, Ford Motor, Tesla, Mercedes-Benz and more have them, at least on some models, and the locations of the camera vary from the steering column to the A-pillar to above the windshield. Some systems, without using a camera, can detect when the driver’s hands come off the steering wheel.

Magna says its mirror system is different because it offers both a full view of the driver’s face and upper body, as well as passengers, while also being concealed inside existing mirror designs.

“Knowing the driver’s distracted, we can utilise tools in the vehicle to bring the driver back to a state of attention,” Pastoor said during a recent demonstration of the system.

“So what that might look like is, maybe you get a little buzz in your seat bolster. (Or) we flash a little light up on the dashboard, something like that, to pull the driver back to attention.”

Demand for driver-monitoring technology is rising. European regulators are phasing in mandates for new vehicles to have systems, with every new car required to have them by 2026.

US transportation officials are studying various driver monitoring systems, as well as those that could thwart drunken driving, ahead of potential rulemaking. China is also soon expected to develop rules requiring distracted-driving detection.

Magna said a German automaker – it wouldn’t say which one – has recently begun using its system for cars sold in Europe and China, and it expects its technology will hit the North American market in 2025.

Driver-monitoring technologies do raise a number of privacy concerns, especially at a time when carmakers are coming under increased scrutiny for sharing driver data that, in some cases, has had real-world implications like hiking insurance rates, said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

“People are eventually going to understand the degree to which they are being watched through their cars,” he said.

The underlying problem of distracted driving is a real one and may justify some privacy invasion, Stanley said.

But such systems would be worrisome if they were recording video or if any data collected by the device was flowing to places outside of the vehicle, including to the automaker.

Stanley said this is a key underlying question: “Is this something that serves the interests of the driver, or is this something that snitches on the driver and engages in unethical reporting to the car companies?”

Peter Spencley, Magna’s director of global product management, said the supplier has been working on the monitoring system for six years after a handful of the company’s employees noticed just how bad distracted driving had become.

Spencley’s personal story with distracted driving came while riding his motorcycle, and seeing all the drivers around him who weren’t watching the road.

“It got to the point where I sold the motorcycle. Like it wasn’t even enjoyable to ride it, because every time I went out, people were drifting in your lane, and they’re just all over,” he said. “You don’t notice it when you’re (in) a car, but you really notice it when you don’t have that protection.”

Designers knew the rearview mirror would be ideal for the camera, given its bird’s-eye view of the cabin.

But Spencley said it also presented some challenges to sort out: Fitting the equipment into such a small space, cutting down on the heat it would produce, and ensuring the driver wouldn’t be able to notice the camera behind the mirror’s surface.

“Nobody wants to feel like a camera’s watching them,” he said.

It will be up to any automaker who uses the technology to decide how many features it wants the system to provide and what sorts of privacy limitations it will have, Pastoor said. An automaker might want it to allow facial recognition, which could detect who’s in the car, and then change the vehicle’s settings to their preferences accordingly.

Or it could remotely detect if the driver left something behind in the car after they parked, or even if a child was left in the backseat. Or it could even be used as a sort of in-vehicle video feed for taking a conference call while sitting in the car.

But while driving, the idea is that the system won’t be overly noticeable, Pastoor said, unless the driver is dangerously distracted. Alerts could build up over time, perhaps starting with a slight seat rumble before progressing to a louder alarm sound.

“This thing is here to help you out,” he said. “Not like somebody’s smacking you over the head with a ruler, but like your buddy that’s like, ‘Hey, you see that? I got you’.”

Sam Abuelsamid, principal emobility analyst at market research firm Guidehouse, said such driver-monitoring systems in new cars remain relatively rare in the US, but he expects that will change rapidly over the next five years, and they could become “fairly universal”.

That’s thanks to a few reasons. Driver-monitoring systems are needed on cars that have hands-free driving assistance, an offering that is becoming more common in new vehicles.

And US regulators appear to be moving in the direction of more monitoring, he said, including to not only thwart distracted driving but to prevent drunken driving.

Such systems, Abuelsamid noted, can also detect if someone is getting drowsy or if they have had a medical emergency, which will trigger the car to automatically brake and come to a stop.

There will “absolutely” be some backlash from consumers, he said, some of whom will undoubtedly feel uncomfortable with a camera watching them drive.

It will be important for carmakers and regulators to ensure the camera systems are used only for real-time monitoring, not recording. But Abuelsamid said there’s just no other way to cut down on distracted driving, including drivers using their phones.

“I’m glad these are becoming more common,” he said. “There are a lot of advantages to having these systems in place.” – The Detroit News/Tribune News Service

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