When is a Smart Vehicle too Smart?

I recently heard a story about a novel technology for the car. A logical approach to safer driving. It scared me silly.

An excellent presentation by Ron Dicarlantonio of iNAGO blew my mind, and in one of those rare, tectonic upheavals of comprehension, I saw where smart automobiles/interconnected machines/autonomous applications, could go. And it made me shudder. The presentation is here (at about the 20 minute mark).

Ron introduced me to the concept of cognitive load which I later found is a well established in psychology. Cognitive load relates to how much of your attention something requires. For some of us, a call from mother may demand a lot of attention, others less so. Think about how hard it is to input your PIN on the credit card machine while discussing plans for next week with a colleague.

iNAGO and Vocolage are collaborating to engineer ‘Safe Driver Notifications’ – an interface between humans and computers in the car. Makes all kinds of sense to try and design a dashboard interface that extracts useful information from traffic reports, along with info about how the car is running, weather and road conditions. And since many of us now communicate, via voice, text and other means, while driving, why not make it even safer to do so through the car interface? This sounds like a wonderful product.

Will there be a day when all news, email, text, social media posts are delivered to us while we drive? That is quite the arsenal of distraction. One possible approach to making cars safe while delivering this information is to modulate the delivery of messages by balancing the cognitive load of the messages with the driving requirements. Light traffic, freshly paved straight-away on a sunny day, the driver receives the message from the kid’s teacher about their unruly behaviour. Driving in rush hours in a blizzard? – no communications get through. This sounds like censorship. Does it make it any better that it will be personalized censorship, since the factors that create cognitive load are different for each person? On the other hand, public safety is at stake if a car goes off the road while the driver watches the latest kitten video.

A related emerging issue for the data-capturing and analyzing automobile, is the ownership of the data.

Who owns the data related to an individual’s driving? If someone routinely travels 20km/hr above the speed limit, will this information eventually make it to his or her insurance rates, to the police, to a potential employer who wants to know how law-abiding the person is? Or will it make it to a dating profile, to select appropriate mates for the risk-taking?

I think this is an area ripe for a lot of discussion and legislation. According to this article from 2014, the answer was a firm ‘don’t know’: “It is not clear, certainly under German law, whether the drivers, the owners or the manufacturers of vehicles can be said to own the data generated by them” .

From my very unscientific survey of one person who recently bought a car, car owners currently are not signing agreements to use their data.
More substantially, this report titled ‘The Connected Car: who is in the driver’s seat’ which seems comprehensive in its look at the privacy perspective states:

 ‘It is not known what proportion of dealerships address the issue of customer data in their dealing with customers. The website of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (“CADA”), had no privacy policy or related information when accessed on Feb.7, 2015, and the CADA Code of Ethics does not address protection of customer data. A survey of three dealerships in Whitehorse, Yukon in February 2014 found that none of them had privacy policies nor did their standard purchase agreements include any term about collection, retention, use or disclosure of the customer’s personal data.’

Another issue is reliability. When it’s cool and damp outside, my 2006 vehicle flashes dashboard fault lights, which I have learned through trial aren’t accurate. I believe moisture gets into a sensor and causes false signals to be sent. Having read of similar experiences with my brand of vehicle by others, I know repair isn’t cost-effective, since there are no mechanical faults, just one in an ancient computer system. Extrapolate to a much smarter car, with more control over the system. My creative mind can imagine random possible faults, such as: the car refusing to operate on a road if there is another vehicle within 500 meters, or if it’s Tuesday, or maybe it will block all messages from the boss because the driver mutters something about ‘when hell freezes over’ in response to a message from her.

Designers are aiming for fewer traffic accidents, through less distraction in the vehicle, which is fantastic. There are lots of emerging questions to keep entrepreneurs busy developing people-friendly versions. One simple solution to ensuring that the driver’s cognitive load isn’t over-taxed by personal messages is to leave the driving to the car. Auto-manufacturers are working towards bringing us new technology in a way that helps us to adapt¹ which I think is what we need to embrace self driving cars.

¹ ‘the industry’s slow-and-steady approach — using computers to help the driver at the wheel rather than replace him or her’ http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/dce10162-b5f1-11e4-a577-00144feab7de.html#axzz3i4uHx22l

1 thought on “When is a Smart Vehicle too Smart?

  1. Ann,
    Thanks for noticing my presentation and being interested.
    You mention some excellent points and questions which as you have realized are still attempting to be answered (i.e. no good answers yet!). I work with the automotive industry and must say I hear many answers and directions. I think we are all in the discovery phase of a new era and a new era is always a little scary but also exciting.

    I have dedicated over the last 15 years of my life trying to make any computer device more friendly and human-like. I try not to overthink the negative possibilities and focus on what we want – an experience that is smart, simple and FUN. And the FUN part is important!

    I hope we all get it right! 🙂

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