By Dllu - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Chinese tech giant, Huawei, has recently filed a patent with the European Patent Office for what could amount to some of the most intrusive technology to be fitted to a vehicle.

It’s capable of detecting whether a driver is drunk, but also whether that driver is frustrated, drowsy or distracted. It can also recognise weapons, drugs and even a phone with text on the display.

Currently, the patent is for autonomous vehicles only, which in itself seems a moot point; the day that vehicles are truly 100% autonomous means there will be no driver ‘in charge’ of the vehicle, so why the technology?

The system will have the capability to decide for itself the best course of action, which ranges from warning the occupants, deactivating the controls or even calling the police.

Self-driving cars

Autonomy and self-driving are closely linked, but not necessarily the same thing, although for many motorists it’s the difference between branded or supermarket fuel – close enough that there’s no real distinction.

Self-driving cars are very much in their infancy – they still have the ability to wow us with their capability, to make headlines when one does something out of the ordinary, and yet they still need to have the human element, ‘just in case’.

Some industry experts are predicting that the first truly-autonomous vehicles will on the road as early as 2021, and the question remains – who will be in charge of them? The operator? Occupant? Owner? With the argument that any occupant will effectively be using a service akin to a taxi or ride-share, surely it doesn’t matter whether they’re distracted or drunk?

The defining point here is the definition of ‘Autonomous Vehicle’.

Sci-Fi

Science-fiction would have us believe that true autonomy comes without a steering wheel, almost a lounge-style cabin, and nothing to do but hold high-powered business meetings, or play with the onboard technology.

So will we still have the human element, and if so, does that necessitate a law against being in one drunk?

The National Transport Commission of Australia (NTC) believes that drink-driving laws need a shake-up.
In a discussion paper, the NTC states that “there is a clear-cut” justification for changing the laws regarding drink or drug-driving because there is no possibility that a human could drive a dedicated autonomous vehicle. “The situation is analogous to a person instructing a taxi driver where to go,” says the NTC.

Data privacy

It would seem as though Huawei, who manufacture no autonomous vehicles of their own, may have found a back-door entrance to scrutinise, store and potentially use personal data. Just as the Amazon Alexa listens constantly to every conversation you have, logs your preferences and buying habits, so too could Huawei.

Imagine a system that’s fitted to your car, that logs each journey, whether you have a penchant for a tipple, or even a cigarette, your mood when driving, the times you frequent the pub, supermarket or gym and then reports back to your insurance company (who for the sake of convenience, cover your life insurance as well).

Your insurance premium gets automatically adjusted, you have an accurate log of behaviour and movement, and anything remotely ‘questionable’ is all recorded, easily accessed by the police or insurance companies.

Perhaps this is what Motorola had in mind when they filed for a patent for a self-driving police car/courtroom, that placed the accused on trial via video link, with those found guilty being autonomously delivered to the nearest jail.

Road safety

Of course we’re in favour of road safety, and technology being used appropriately could make a big difference to accident rates and fatalities, but this kind of technology comes at the cost of privacy, some may even say infringing on our rights.

For those that disagree with this viewpoint, that believe a giant tech company would never abuse such exclusive and intimate detail of our lives, you’ve only got to look at the largest social-media platform (with over 1 billion users), and their understanding of privacy to see that this is a very real concern.

It’s understandable that the authorities are investing in technology to help make roads safer – the ‘yellow vultures’ may not be the answer, just the same as the majority of safety cameras, but with ever-increasing budget cuts, manpower is dwindling and technology is taking over. We just need the right type of technology.

Whether there is any validity to the patents (both Huawei and Motorola), the technology exists to make it happen, but we’re a short step away from an autonomous lifestyle, governed, measured and reported on.

What do you think to the ingress of technology in the automotive world? Do you see a need for such a system? Should we just sit back and let progress take its course? Let us know in the comments.

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