General Motors May Be The First To Offer Cars That Detect Distracted Drivers

September 2, 2014

Distracted driving is a hot topic these days. Beyond the usual distractions of burgers, babies, and blush, now we have to deal with smartphones, infotainment systems, and a host of other bright, shiny things.

Many companies and organizations have tried to put the brakes on distracted driving, from app-makers to cell phone makers to government agencies. A few automakers have jumped into the fray with ads that encourage drivers to put down their devices, but General Motors may one-up all of them thanks to new in-car technology designed to detect distracted motorists.

According to CNBC, the technology will come from an Australian firm called Seeing Machines. It will take the form of a series of cameras paired with facial recognition software -- kind of like the software that Facebook uses to auto-tag your friends in photos, but in this case, it'll take note of things like the rotation of the driver's head and how often he/she blinks. That will help the system determine whether a driver is looking at the road, at a cell phone, or even nodding off. If the situation proves dire enough, the system could theoretically slow the vehicle and force the driver to pull over -- not unlike a certain attention-powered car we've seen before.

General Motors has contracted with Seeing Machines to buy up to 500,000 of the camera systems over the next three to five years. There's no word yet on pricing or how it might be offered to consumers, but given the size of the potential order, we'd assume it will debut as part of a safety package upgrade on select GM models.

The good news is that the Seeing Machines' systems can do more than just combat distracted driving (though frankly, that would be plenty in our book). They could also be used to deter auto theft by disabling vehicles if the person in the driver's seat isn't an authorized user. It might also allow drivers to activate apps, navigation, and other tools, with just a simple glance.  

The bad news is that the cameras may represent another small erosion of privacy. If they're paired with soon-to-be-mandatory event data recorders (aka "black boxes") on automobiles, they could provide personal data to judges and juries during court cases. And if insurance companies tap into the systems using gadgets like Progressive's Snapshot, they could cause your insurance rate to climb.

And in the middle, somewhere between good and bad, there's the fact that Seeing Machines' devices will ultimately be made by Takata -- the same Takata that produced millions upon millions of flawed airbag systems, triggering recalls around the globe. We have no reason to believe that these new systems will be anything less than perfect, but the timing of the announcement is unfortunate.


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