Cars With Self-Driving Capabilities Are Watching You

Humans aren't great at monitoring assisted-driving systems while they're controlling a car. Will more driver surveillance help?

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An Optimus Ride employee sits in the driver seat as he monitors the autonomous six-seater shuttle bus as it drives through the Brooklyn Navy Yard on August 15, 2019 in New York City.
An Optimus Ride employee sits in the driver seat as he monitors the autonomous six-seater shuttle bus as it drives through the Brooklyn Navy Yard on August 15, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Photo by Drew Angerer) (Getty Images)

Self-driving cars still don’t exist, despite a decade of research and development from both start-ups and legacy automakers. But Level 2 vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems similar to self-driving technology do exist, and those cars are more and more often turning their electronic eye inwards to monitor the supposed real cause of car crashes: Human drivers.

Wired just published a deep-dive into how cars with ADAS are increasingly monitoring the humans behind the wheel. While the publication frames this technology as a good thing — allowing cars to give feedback and maintain the focus of their weak, human drivers — it should still give any driver of these vehicles pause. As Wired writes:

As more of those driver-facing sensors make their way inside vehicles, industry experts expect the implications to go well beyond their role in automated driving features. Through alerts, alarms, and nudges they could retrain the fatigued, smartphone-fiddling, infotainment system-scrolling drivers of 21st century highways to make them safer—or at least force them to drive differently to avoid nagging from a digital overseer.

Today, these systems are relatively simple, but researchers say they may eventually combine information from internal and external cameras, radars, and lidars to decide when drivers need extra nannying. Driving, in other words, could become almost a different task entirely—a collaboration with a complex machine that expects you to behave in certain ways and isn’t shy to tell you when you’re not playing your part.


And who wouldn’t want to be treated like Amazon delivery drivers in their own vehicles? Humans are notoriously bad at Level 2 driving. Our brains and attention spans have a really hard time switching from passively watching something to being immediately mentally available when the software can’t handle a situation on the road. And as car and tech companies try to bridge the gap to Level 3 assisted driving, which would require even less concentration from a human driver, the mental challenges have proven to be even more immense. After $10 billion invested and 10 years of development, self-driving cars still have a problem making left-hand turns, for just one example.

So, where do these Level 2 autonomous driving systems, that require full attention lest they veer off the road or crash, get off judging your driving? The current tech can’t make it down the road without a driver ready to take the wheel, but some camera is going to correct that same human driver? Also, will this camera be recording and storing that footage, either now or in the future? How will law enforcement use this footage? Years ago, not many people could imagine, for instance, a technology like license-plate readers restricting Americans’ civil rights, but now it poses a risk to those leaving their state to seek comprehensive medical care elsewhere.

I am all for folks driving more safely, but drivers of ADAS or Level 2-equipped vehicles are already over-confident in their cars’ abilities. Some such systems can be easily fooled, as we saw with Tesla and its steering wheel hacks. Perhaps selling a technologically advanced car — advertised to be not only safe, but capable of some level of self-driving — won’t actually make our roads safer, whether the human driver or the in-car technology is tasked with babysitting. In fact, there are some simple, low-cost and low technology solutions that could cut America’s road deaths in half, but we view them as too big of a pain in the ass to implement them.

Read the whole cheery Wired story for yourself and decide.