My old Irish grandmother liked to say the most dangerous part of any automobile is the nut behind the wheel. While Waymo, Uber, Tesla, and a thousand other startups are burning the midnight oil (and cubic yards of dollars) to perfect self-driving systems that will allow us to safely watch re-runs of Bugs Bunny cartoons in our cars, people continue to drink and drive, putting us all at risk of death or dismemberment.
The Insurance Information Institute cites statistics from NHTSA that say 10,142 people died in alcohol impaired crashes in 2019. Alcohol was a factor in 28% of all US crash fatalities that year. That is three times the number of Americans who died on September 11, 2001, and while that horror lead to global war and the expenditure of trillions of dollars, 10,142 alcohol related deaths is hardly a blip on anybody’s radar. Even though attitudes about drunk driving have changed, still far too many people are blasé about those who tipple and then get behind the wheel.
Another problem that leads to traffic accidents is distracted driving, which today usually involves those who are texting while driving but also includes those dealing with backseat tantrums from children or trying to find that errant glove that slipped down between the seats.
The Infrastructure Bill
In April, the Reduce Impaired Driving For Everyone bill was introduced in the US Congress. It requires the US Department of Transportation to establish a technology safety standard for automakers within three years. Automakers would then have another two years to comply and implement tech that detects and prevents drunk or distracted driving. That proposed legislation has now been included in the massive 2,702 page long infrastructure bill passed by Congress last week.
According to TechCrunch, while the law does not dictate what type of technology should be used, industry experts believe companies developing camera-based driver monitoring systems (DMS) stand to benefit the most. Such systems are already in use in many autonomous driving systems.
“What’s happening in the U.S. Senate this week potentially opens the door to a camera-based real-time solution, which will be the first time that the U.S. automakers will have the ability and the requirement to look at real-time physiological changes in your body that occur when you are inebriated,” says Mike Lenné, chief science and innovation officer at Seeing Machines. “There are distinct reliable changes to the way you scan the environment, to the way your eyes respond to stimuli, which is why the police use that ‘follow the finger’ test.”
If such a system detects impaired or distracted driving , it could slow the vehicle or bring it to a halt, as happened recently to a Tesla driver in Norway who passed out while behind the wheel. That incident has led to a social media storm accusing Tesla of being lax on safety because its car allowed this driver to take the wheel in the first place.
Blood Alcohol Level Or Eye Tracking?
Which leads to this question: should cars incorporate some sort of blood alcohol level test before being driven? The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety program, a technology that’s been developed in partnership between the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has advocated using a breath or touch based approach to determine blood alcohol levels. The touch based approach involves measuring alcohol levels by shining an infrared light through the driver’s fingertip. According to DADSS, the current timeline for bringing the breath-based approach to vehicles is by 2024, and the touch-based approach by 2025.
Maybe the idea of blowing into a tube before being allowed to operate a motor vehicle sounds goofy to some folks, especially those who don’t drink, but until a few weeks ago, the idea that an umpire would inspect the uniform of every Major League pitcher during a game to prevent the use of illegal substances was considered an abomination. Today, it is routine and barely gets noticed.
Lenné argues that a camera-based approach is more reliable. Someone could theoretically down a few shots immediately before getting behind the wheel and it wouldn’t show up on a reading for several minutes, or they could get drunk while driving. And BAC detection doesn’t help at all when it comes to drug-impaired driving or distracted driving, which can include a whole range of human behavior from cognitive impairments to road rage.
“From an integration viewpoint, it’s actually not a step change at all from what the OEMs are doing right now for distracted driving and drowsy driving with camera-based DMS. It’s just another feature to offer, another algorithm on the chip, if you like,” Lenné says.
MADD & Safety
Stephanie Manning, chief government affairs officer at Mothers Against Drunk, tells TechCrunch, “Billions of dollars have gone into developing the technology to make AVs a reality but they are really far off. In the process, automakers have developed a lot of technology that can help us right now in terms of saving lives. If this passes, it’s going to be the biggest safety rule making that NHTSA has ever done in terms of lives saved, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. But the more we wait, the more we delay, the more people die.”
The technology is not that far from becoming available, Lenné says. Seeing Machines provides the DMS that is used in Super Cruise, GM’s hands-free advanced driver assistance system. Super Cruise is now in the Cadillac CT6, CT4, CT5, Escalade, and Chevrolet Bolt. Seeing Machine’s tech is also used in the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class and EQS sedans.
“Once it’s regulated, we can expect to see more entrants to the market because what this does is it creates a top-down demand,” says Lenné. “It takes it out of the consumers’ hands and tells vehicles they must have these safety features, so the market size will increase dramatically, and so will the market opportunity.”
One newcomer to this segment is Sweden’s Tobii Tech, which has been working on eye tracking since 2001, but not in the automotive sector. CEO Anand Srivatsa tells TechCrunch one of the biggest challenges will be scaling across different populations, given the different eye shapes of people from different ethnic backgrounds.
“Because of this long history, we have what it takes to deliver a full solution from a component level all the way to end software because we’ve done it in other parts of our business,” Srivatsa says. “What I am hoping and dreaming for is technologies like forward collision warning, or blind spot warning, or even the lane swerving warnings that help me out when I need it most by understanding if I’m becoming complacent or tired, perhaps distracted, and then adjust how the systems perform, the warning timing and things like that, based on what I need in the moment.”
Stephanie Manning of MADD sees bumps in the road ahead for this technology. She thinks automakers want to be able to upcharge for safety features, not have them mandated by the government. “Automakers want to test their supercomputers on the open road, but they don’t want to put the money and time and energy into solving drunk driving, because they don’t feel it’s their responsibility, and they don’t want this rule-making. We fully expect that they’re going to fight us tooth and nail throughout the rule-making process.”
With cars becoming more like rolling computers, detecting impaired or distracted driving seems like it should be a simple thing to do, but it is far more complex than the casual observer might imagine. Ultimately, the solution will be to simply prohibit humans from driving at all. Autonomous cars will take us where we need to go with no input from us, just the way elevators take us to the floor we want without human intervention.
Some people will be horrified by that prospect. Others will cheer it. But the only constant in life is change. In baseball, pitchers like Pedro Martinez got into the Hall of Fame by throwing fastballs at the heads of batters. Today, such pitches are banned. It used to be that pitchers would sharpen their belt buckle so they could cut the cover of the ball or apply a little dab of Brylcreem to the spheroid, either one of which would affect the trajectory of a pitch.
Now the game has been sanitized, but life goes on and we watch it with as much passion as we ever did. Perhaps our children will marvel at the fact that we were ever allowed to drive our cars at all just as they roll their eyes at the thought of a world without cellphones. The point is, we cause so much damage when we drive and create so much misery for the victims of traffic accidents, we probably should be prohibited from driving just as soon as there is a viable alternative.
But until Level 5 autonomous cars are in general use, systems that can detect impaired and distracted driving could go a long way toward reducing the carnage on the world’s highways, even if that means we can’t guzzle brewskis while we drive and toss the empties into the back of our pickup trucks any more.