If sometimes you feel like somebody’s watching you, get ready to feel that way all the time. At least if you spend a good amount of time in your car. And you’ll only be more surveilled in the future, as automakers find new and more efficient ways to keep track of what’s happening inside their vehicles. One of the latest tools in this move toward a, let’s say senior sibling, state comes from Guardian Optical Technologies, an Israeli outfit promising a whole new view of what’s happening inside the car.
This week at CES in Las Vegas, the Tel Aviv-based startup showed off what it calls Optical Cabin Control. The system uses one camera, a little bigger than the one in your cell phone, built into the ceiling, about where you put your sunglasses. That camera is an off-the-shelf unit, CEO Gil Dotan says—all the valuable IP is in how its configured and the algorithms that sort through its images. Thanks to some clever machine learning, it recognizes when the driver takes their hands off the wheel and whether their head is pointed ahead at the road, or down at a phone, or back at the kids. It’s working to detect when a driver is holding a phone, and when their eyes are closed.
(Guardian creates the training images for those learning systems by hiring diverse groups of people to pile into its fleet of test cars, in different outfits. They pose with various accessories, including pets. “It’s like a train station in our office,” Dotan says.)
The idea of the car watching the driver isn’t new—systems that look for signs of drowsiness have been around for more than a decade—but they are gaining importance as cars offer more advanced driver assistance features. Because semi-autonomous tools like Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac Supercruise require the driver pay attention even when the car’s doing the work, automakers need ways to make sure their eyes stay on the road. Tesla, Nissan, and others use a torque sensor to register when the human’s hands are on the steering wheel. Cadillac uses an infrared camera to watch head position. Audi has a gaze tracking setup.
Guardian’s system promises to match those capabilities, and to offer a wider field of view. That may not sound like much, but Dotan puts it near the center of his sales pitch. Along with watching how the driver is behaving, the camera can cast its gaze to other parts of the car. Dotan’s original use for his sensor was checking for kids left in the backseat. (The National Safety Council has found an average of 37 children die of heatstroke in cars in the US every year; about half of them forgotten by their parents or caregivers.) It still has that capability, Dotan says, along with others: It can detect whether the passenger seat is occupied or empty, to activate the airbag or not. It can verify whether everyone has buckled their seatbelt. It can look for behaviors that indicate distracted driving.
Dotan wants automakers to use Guardian’s system for all their people-watching needs, and get rid of today’s hodge-podge sensor suite. He says doing just that could save an automaker up to $370 per car—as astronomical sum in an industry where execs agonize over one- and two-dollar differences. “The cost per feature is lower, and that means they can sell more cars with higher margins,” Dotan says.
But big automakers don’t make such changes easily, says Jeff Owens, who spent 40 years at industry supplier Delphi and served as CTO before retiring last year. The pressure sensors that now detect human butts in seats are inexpensive and trustworthy—not exactly ripe for disruption. Swapping in a camera-based system would require convincing not just profit-hungry car execs, but the rulemakers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who govern how cars are built and certified. They’re not exactly quick to change their standards.
To make things extra difficult, using a single sensor to do all those things means coordinating work across a sea of engineering groups who deal with different parts of the car. “It’s hard for car companies to operate at that level,” Owens says. “Replacing all those sensors is a pretty far-fetched dream.”
A complex system that intelligently tracks how the driver is behaving, though, will only increase in value, especially if it’s capable and affordable. Today’s semi-autonomous features need to know drivers are watching the road. The next generation will free the humans to play with their phone—but will also occasionally need them to take back control, which means the car must know whether the human is capable of doing so at any given point.
That point of view, though, raises another question: Will the public accept cameras in their cars?
“I think there’s a bit of a frog in the pot in terms of privacy,” says Karl Brauer, an industry analyst with Kelley Blue Book. Cameras inside the car are becoming commonplace, and automakers might be enticed by the chance to sell data around their drivers’ habits and behaviors.
You look sleepy, have you tried Starbucks’ new rock-a-mocha latte? Your kid just spilled their soda, here’s a coupon for a bottle of Tide. You and your spouse have been fighting a lot—care for recommendations on couples counselors?
Today though, the systems offered by Guardian and its competitors are focused on safety and convenience. Just hope that the technology that lets you abandon the steering wheel doesn’t require you abandoning your right to at least some privacy on the road.