Volvo plans to install cameras in its vehicles that will monitor drivers for signs of distracted or impaired driving and take action if it appears that a driver’s behavior becomes dangerous.
The Swedish automaker, which recently announced that it would limit the top speeds of its cars as a way of making highways safer, said Wednesday the cameras would be part of a system that would slow the vehicles and “safely park” them on the side of the road if they detected that a driver was becoming incapacitated or if the driver’s attention had lapsed for a long time. The technology would also summon help from its 24/7 assistance center.
The announcement -- though welcomed as a possible step toward reducing traffic deaths -- raised a host of questions about civil rights, not to mention operational details about technology that is both making judgments about a person’s behavior and possibly seizing control of his vehicle.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said he sees parallels to the use of data recorders in vehicles that function somewhat like the black boxes in airliners. The devices continuously record and write over data about the vehicle’s speed and other factors. In the event of a crash, however, the data recorders preserve a snapshot of data in the moments before impact.
“My assumption is that auto safety advocates, police, etc. are going to want that data available to them after crashes. That means, in some ways, that the camera becomes not just something helping you out, but potentially an eye of the state,” Stanley said.
Volvo should be transparent from the first about what the camera would monitor and how, right down to the software coding that would control the devices, and the public should have a say in how the information will be used, Stanley said.
“I think people should have as much control as possible over what’s being collected, how it’s being shared, and who it’s being shared with,” Stanley said. “We want these devices to be working on our behalf, not as snitches. No one wants a snitch looking over their shoulder all the time, a robotic snitch.”
Volvo’s new technology will focus on visual alertness -- such as eye movements, pupil reactions and scanning behavior -- as well as overall reaction times and other control-related behavior to assess the driver’s condition, a company spokesman said in an email. He also said no data will be stored and nothing would only be shared with owner’s consent.
“We take the privacy of our customers very seriously,” he said. “We are talking about addressing behavior for the safety of our drivers, not being an extension of law enforcement.”
The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) expressed guarded optimism about the development, saying driver-assist technology has the potential to make streets and highways safer. But the GHSA also said people already have the ability to avoid driving while distracted or impaired and shouldn’t have to wait for a high-tech solution.
“As new technology advances, it’s important to remember that drivers are already equipped with a powerful technology tool – their brain – to stay sober and focused while behind the wheel,” a spokeswoman said.
Volvo, whose announcement was covered by the Verge and other tech news media, said the move was part of its Vision 2020 safety campaign to reduce serious injuries and fatalities in its vehicles. Earlier this month, Volvo said it would limit the top speed in its vehicles to a little more than 112 mph.
The efforts fall in line with initiatives in the United States and other countries such as Vision Zero to find ways to reduce traffic deaths, particularly among vulnerable users such as pedestrians and bicyclists.
Stanley, who bicycles, said the need for strong measures to combat impaired and distracted driving are on display all the time, but that doesn’t mean that civil rights concerns have to be sacrificed to achieve greater safety.
“I don’t need any convincing of the dangers of distracted driving I see it every day. I live in terror of it every day,” he said. But civil rights can be addressed, too, even as the places that people can be free of monitoring seem to be shrinking.
“I do think the walls are closing in on us with new monitoring mechanisms surrounding us at every turn," Stanley said. “Some of those monitoring systems may be justified, but may of them are not, and we need to ask careful questions about each new one."
--This posting has been updated to correct the top speed limit.