On Tuesday, the largest automotive lobbying group released a handful of safety guidelines related to driver monitoring for vehicles equipped with driver-assistance features. It’s pageantry designed to convince you and the rest of the world to embrace technologies that have already led to unsettling privacy violations. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation making recommendations for the industry is farcical because the AAI already represents just about every major player on the field, suppliers included. The only real outsider is Tesla, which the organization decided would make an excellent scapegoat for the broader tech agenda.
But there’s still merit to the discussion, especially if the only proposed solution is to let the industry watch us inside our cars 24/7.
We’ve often chided Tesla CEO Elon Musk for making lofty promises that never seem to follow the path outlined and allowing features like Autopilot and “Full Self Driving” (FSD) to be marketed irresponsibly — potentially promoting accidents related to the misuse of its products’ advanced driving aids.
However, going P. T. Barnum on the public is a smart way to sell them on new products. It’s something the whole industry engages in by varying degrees and there’s a long history of scandals that go back all the way to the invention of the automobile. The same goes for the bitter competitions we frequently witnessed between manufacturers.
Tesla is an upstart that positioned itself incredibly well with early adopters long before legacy firms had started taking electric vehicles seriously. It’s a threat and rivals have seen a weakness when it comes to Autopilot. Following a few high-profile crashes involving the system, and widespread abuse by stupid people, the world decided that every Tesla wreck would now be suspect. While we appreciate a critical eye, that’s also something that could be applied to any other manufacturer selling vehicles equipped with advanced driving aids — which testing has shown possess some issues.
The AAI had enough sense not to name Tesla in its release. But it’s pretty clear who they’re talking about.
“High profile crashes involving Level 2 systems where drivers were not appropriately engaged, erode consumer acceptance of and consumer confidence in Level 2 systems and could have implications for acceptance of more highly-automated vehicles,” said AAI CEO John Bozzella. “It was clear to our member companies that we needed to begin a public conversation about the important of effective driver monitoring.”
Ford and General Motors have both embraced systems that use driver-facing cameras that track eye and facial movements — and this appears to be the general trend the industry is taking, with the Alliance for Automotive Innovation suggesting they should become the norm for all modern cars. But Tesla doesn’t use them and it’s getting coyly bashed by not being part of the group. Bozzella has even said that the EV brand’s history definitely reduced consumer acceptance of semi-autonomous features.
But that hardly seems a fair accusation when bigger players have implemented similar systems and failed to adhere to any of the promised target dates of selling autonomous vehicles, despite years of hype. Any advancements that were made seemed to be funneled into their mobility projects, which turned into the industry’s catch-all excuse to advance connectivity features that leverage driver data.
Now they want to put cameras inside the vehicle that watch you pick your nose in traffic under the pretext of safety? Excuse our skepticism.
Whatever welfare advancements this tactic might offer have already been undermined by the industry installing systems that weren’t ready to deliver in the first place. The solution shouldn’t be to find ways to make the driver more accountable (and keep them legally liable) when technology fails, it should be withholding features until they’re ready to function as originally promised.
Meanwhile, the unholy marriage of industry and state continues with the AAI spending Tuesday to attend a congressional hearing led by Michigan Sen. Gary Peters (D). The lobbying group will undoubtedly recommend new regulations requiring driver monitoring. Congress is assumed to be generally receptive since it’s currently on a technology kick in the hopes that the U.S. can remain competitive with China. But the government is also hoping to shore up guidelines for autonomous vehicles without going overboard, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration having spent the last two years trying to get as many opinions on how to regulate them as possible.
It’s getting harder to remain objective on topics like this because the veneer keeps getting thinner. These initiatives are always framed as if they’re for the greater good. But our collective inability to think more than two steps ahead is making it impossible to test the theories in our heads to make a decision about whether or not the original claim was true. Driver-monitoring cameras seem like a bridge that isn’t worth crossing and would likely open the door to all kinds of privacy abuse from corporate actors. And whatever assurances the industry makes that the data won’t be misemployed cannot be wholly trusted because it has proven itself to have an extremely casual relationship with the truth.
[Image: Ford Motor Co.]