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Autonomous Vehicles

Tesla Model 3/Y Equipped With Rear-Facing Camera. What’s Up With That?

Elon Musk says the rear-facing interior camera in the Model 3 and Model Y is there to monitor what happens when the cars are used in robotaxi mode. Is that a good thing?

A tweet on April 11 started it. That’s when greentheonly posted a photo on Twitter showing what the rear-facing camera installed in all Tesla Model 3 and Model Y vehicles would see if activated. That tweet was followed by another from Marty Tee speculating about the purpose of the camera.

The following day, that second tweet got a one word response from Elon Musk: “Correct.” So, there is a camera inside every Model 3 and Model Y that is able to monitor everything that happens in the interior, but it is not turned on yet, according to Elon.

Of course, that led to a ton of speculation about when the Tesla Network, the service that will allow Tesla owners to place their cars in revenue service whenever they are not using them for personal transportation, will be activated. That also got a response from Elon, slightly longer than one word.

A recent report by the NTSB found fault with the way Autopilot functions and suggested it should be subject to new regulations at the state and federal level. If regulations start piling up, it could get harder and harder for the next level of Autopilot, “Full Self Driving,” approved. We should find out more about that this year.

Jeremy Bentham & Privacy

One can always disable the camera, but the fact that it is there raises a host of social and legal issues. In a recent Jack Reacher novel, the author suggests that if in the ’90s someone had suggested people should carry an electronic identity device on their person that would allow the government to monitor their private conversations and location 24 hours a day, a rebellion would have taken place.

But in a post-9/11 America, personal privacy has taken a back seat to the so-called War on Terror. And the smartphone has become a necessary part of life even though it does the same thing Lee Child warned about in his novel. Alexa and Siri are welcome in our homes even though they record every aspect of our lives for the benefit of governments and marketers.

Clearly, an interior camera is going to record any number of inappropriate behaviors, from back-seat sex to drunk driving to road rage, all of which will be available to prosecutors and divorce lawyers sooner or later. Tesla itself could use the camera against its own customers to prove they were operating their cars improperly when a serious accident occurred. Do we really want carmakers to know everything there is to know about our intimate personal lives?

It may be true that the rear-facing camera will faithfully record the robotaxi user who slashes the upholstery or spills a meat lovers pizza with extra sauce on the seats, and that fact alone may deter antisocial behavior. People who vomit on the floor (ask any Lyft or Uber driver how often that happens) may get charged a cleaning fee, but how do we know the system is not collecting video and data about us when we are operating our own car that we bought and paid for?


Plan of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison, drawn by Willey Reveley in 1791. Public domain via Wikipedia

In 1843, Jeremy Bentham proposed a new kind of prison he called the Panopticon. It placed all the cells in a circle around a central guard tower, so the prison staff could see what each inmate was doing every second of every day. Part of his plan was to save money by using fewer guards, but another function of the Panopticon was to exert social pressure on the inmates to behave correctly — or else.

There are many uses for the rear-facing camera. It could monitor drivers for signs of inebriation or drowsiness and activate the car’s autonomous driving features to prevent death or injury to the driver, passengers, or other motorists. With alcohol involved in the majority of traffic accidents, this would seem to be a no-brainer, yet for some reason Musk is resistant to the idea. He touts Autopilot as saving lives but has seemingly never taken steps to reduce the incidence of impaired driving by Tesla owners. The camera could also be incorporated into the Autopilot system to detect whether or not the driver actually has a hand on the wheel — or has crawled into the back seat to take a nap.

People have been clamoring for a camera to record what goes on inside their cars, hoping it would help apprehend vandals. That may be true, but never forget these words: Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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