Car blimey! When your wheels are watching you, watch out
New tech unveiled in Las Vegas monitors you inside your car, potentially using eye tracking to sell you stuff
As vehicles get smarter, your car will be keeping eyes on you. This week at CES, the international consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, a host of startup companies will demonstrate to global car makers how the sensor technology that watches and analyses drivers, passengers and objects in cars will mean enhanced safety in the short term, and revenue opportunities in the future.
Whether by generating alerts about drowsiness, unfastened seat belts or wallets left in the back seat, the emerging technology aims not only to cut back on distracted driving and other undesirable behaviour, but eventually help car makers and ride-hailing companies make money from data generated inside the vehicle.
When self-driving cars gain broad acceptance, the monitoring cameras and the artificial-intelligence software behind them are likely to be used to help create a more customised ride for the passengers.
Right now, however, such cameras are being used mainly to enhance safety, not unlike a helpful backseat driver. Interior-facing cameras inside the car are still a novelty, currently found only in the 2018 Cadillac CT6. Audi and Tesla have developed systems but they are not currently activated. Mazda, Subaru and electric vehicle start-up Byton are introducing cars for 2019 whose cameras measure driver inattention.
Startup Nauto’s camera and AI-based tech is used by commercial fleets. Data from the cameras is analysed with image recognition software to determine whether a driver is looking at his cellphone or the dashboard, turned away, or getting sleepy, to cite a few examples.
It is not yet clear how consumers in the age of Facebook and virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa will react to the potentially disconcerting idea of being watched – then warned – inside a vehicle, especially as cars become living rooms with the advent of self-driving.
In the wake of a 2016 fatal Tesla crash, the US National Transportation Safety Board recommended car makers develop means to better track driver engagement. But automakers are more excited by the revenue possibilities when vehicle-generated data creates a more customised experience for riders, generating higher premiums, and lucrative tie-ins with third parties, such as retailers.
“The reason (the camera) is going to sweep across the cabin is not because of distraction ... but because of all the side benefits,” said Mike Ramsey, Gartner’s automotive research director. “I promise you that companies that are trying to monetise data from the connected car are investigating ways to use eye-tracking technology.”
Car makers could gather data and sell it. A billboard advertiser might be eager to know how many commuters look at his sign, Ramsey said. Tracking the gaze of a passenger toward a store or restaurant could, fused with mapping and other software, result in a discount offered to that person.
Tesla owners have speculated about the Model 3’s currently inoperational interior camera, with some asking in forums whether “Big Brother” was watching.
“Put a small piece of scotch tape on it ... and you can nose pick again ...” advised one post.