With well over 6 million CCTV cameras in the UK, we Brits are accustomed to being watched. This is even more obvious when you’re a British driver, with recent news telling us authorities will use cameras to detect drivers using cycle lanes and mobile phones. Now, in-car technology is being developed that takes driver surveillance to a whole new level.

With in-car cameras, lasers, and radar to detect who you are and what you and your passengers are doing, car manufacturers can soon track your habits and behaviours—but does this potential for safer driving mean a dangerous lack of privacy?

The road ahead

Connected cars are nothing new. In 1996, General Motors launched the first connected car with ‘OnStar’ in some of their Cadillac models, designed to get emergency help to a car in an accident. The Cadillac CT6 already uses cameras to check the driver’s eyes for lack of attention and drowsiness and many other carmakers are following along with some of their models possessing similar functions. But what else can drivers expect to see soon?

BMW has developed what they call ‘Natural interaction’—gaze recognition along with improved gesture and voice recognition—for their iNEXT model, available from 2021. BMW says the gaze recognition allows motorists not just to control the car interior with their eyes, but the high-definition camera in the dashboard can tell what the driver is looking at outside, too. The manufacturer says drivers can look at a restaurant as they drive past and find out the opening hours, what’s on the menu, and even book a table.

And thanks to improvements in vertical-cavity-surface-emitting lasers (VCSEL), cameras might soon have the same technology as Apple’s FaceID software to display a variety of data of who is inside the car.

Cameras don’t work at their best in cramped areas, such as cars, because of objects—like seats—blocking the camera’s view. This is where radar works better.

Firms such as Texas Instruments are using millimetre-wave radar technology, which takes very detailed measurements because it uses such small wavelengths. Developers are working on various applications, including the ability to differentiate between males, females, and even dogs within a car.

Radar technology could detect the direction passengers face in self-driving cars—where occupants may face in various directions—so airbags and other passive safety systems can configure themselves in a crash. Careys has built two radar systems; with one measuring biometrics and health—such as respiration and heart rate—and another that counts the number of passengers and their positioning.

Vayyar and Brose are working together to get cars to detect obstructions outside the car by limiting how far the door can open. This will not only prevent drivers from having their cars dented by hitting walls, poles, etc. but will also protect cyclists from ‘dooring’.

In a heartbeat

Earlier this year, Google got the approval of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use millimetre-wave radar to work at higher power levels for their Project Soli. A microchip emits the radar and allows users to press a virtual button or turn a virtual dial by identifying fine finger gestures, which the chip then translates into commands resembling touches on a screen.

The FCC said the decision to provide a waiver for the project “will serve the public interest by providing for innovative device control features using touchless hand gesture technology,”.

B-Secur says everyone has a unique electrocardiograph (ECG) signature that technology can use to assess our condition while driving and even unlock our vehicles. The company is working on biometric technology that will place medical-grade ECG sensors inside car steering wheels to monitor the motorist’s health via their cardiac rhythm.

Dr Andrew Mitchell, Consultant Cardiologist, and advisor on the board for B-Secur said:

“Your car will only unlock for you, it will know when you’re alert and when you’re sleepy; your doctor or nurse will know with certainty who they are administering the medicine to; the insurance company will know for [sic] certainty who was driving the car at the time of the accident. The applications are limitless.”

‘No such thing as 100% safe’

No doubt these advances in automotive technology will provide many benefits to drivers and other road users, but they come with concerns; one of which is privacy.

Consider the information your connected car will collect: It will have access to your personal information, location, calendar; shopping and driving habits; whether you speed, forget to use your seat belt, the state of your health, your email content—and much more.

Sharing so many of your personal details has the potential of leaving you vulnerable to unwanted advertisers and hackers—or perhaps you might receive a fixed penalty notice or parking fine without a police officer or traffic warden in sight!

Yet, most of us own a smartphone these days, which means giving up a measure of privacy (think of Google Maps needing to know our location to work at its best) and the same applies to connected cars. When we enable and use certain car functions, we decide that the value we derive from the car’s software outweighs our privacy concerns.

Managing Director and Vice President of ABI Research, Dominique Bonte, said:

“Everything that hits the Internet is not 100% safe. There are cyber-attacks all the time.”

“There’s no such thing as a 100% safe network. So as soon as something gets connected, there’s a risk that someone could get hands on that data.”

But privacy is not the only concern; there could be fatal consequences if, for example, a hacker can download malicious software to the computer responsible for automatic braking. Only when these ‘cars of the future’ are part of day-to-day life will we understand the full repercussions of their use—both positive and negative.

Even today, Volvo released a set of new features for all cars from 2021 to improve the safety of drivers. One of these is an in-car monitoring system, and we’ve attached the video below for you to watch.

How do you feel about your car tracking and monitoring you? Do you already use any of the technology mentioned? Tell us your views in the comments.

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