Distracted driving and big data — what’s the connection and concern

General Motors just announced that it is planning on beginning to place special distracted driving software into some of its new automobiles. This software will track eye movement and head movement to determine distraction levels. The idea is to keep track of what the passenger is doing and alert him or her if they seem to be becoming too distracted.

Drivers who like to check their e-mail or do their make-up at visitors lights, beware. General Motors, the largest US auto manufacturer by sales, is preparing to launch the planet’s very first mass-produced automobiles with eye- and head-tracking technology that can inform whether drivers are distracted, according to men and women with knowledge of the plans.

This technology has already been in use in commercial vehicles run by mining and trucking companies. It is created by Seeing Machines.

Seeing Machines’ in-cab, real-time Driver Safety System (DSS) monitors fatigue and distraction events. It is currently piloting in a number of the largest fleets of commercial carriers.

Fatigue is a known cause of serious fleet incidents around the world. Reducing the number of incidents is a major goal for operators, owners, insurers and every road user.

This kind of technology has several promises. Some are helpful to passengers. Others are helpful to insurance companies. Some are helpful to rental car/truck companies. And, others are helpful to lawyers litigating car crash cases.

The first is not controversial. Helping passengers remain more alert and focused on the road is a simple proposition and one with which few will argue. The video above shows that this technology has been used in industrial vehicles already. When data is used strictly for keeping drivers awake and less distracted, that is good. The other use of this data can raise significant problems.

Here is where “big data,” already collected continuously while millions of people drive across the country, comes into play. Car owners would be surprised if they knew the amount of data that is collected about their driving habits.

TU_Ad_350-350Tracking drivers
Rental car companies that limit the geography within which a car may be driven are already using GPS technology to track their automobiles. Drivers who cross into other states or countries are easily discovered and fined.

That kind of tracking seems innocuous; however, when it is applied to movement of parties in a divorce case, as it has already, it becomes creepy. A husband claiming that he was on a business trip was tracked through a data subpoena. It turned out that his deposition was untrue when data collected through his GPS indicated that he was spending time at the home of another woman.

Insurance processes
Insurance companies are using what are called telematics. Black boxes are already collecting data in almost every new car on the road. Once, police would measure skid marks and look at a crumpled fender to determine roughly the speed that a car was traveling when in an accident. Today, the little black box tells crash investigators and insurance companies exactly what was happening in terms of speed and when brakes were applied.

Insurance firms are already investing in telematics to monitor driver behavior, applying smartphones and “black boxes” which feed details back and adjust premiums according to that customer’s use of the car.

Some insurance companies provide discounts to clients who install additional black boxes on their automobiles that can provide real-time tracking of driving. These provide insurance companies with even more data and are installed with the agreement of the automobile owners. Many other black boxes are installed as part of the original car equipment.

Automobile repairs
In Massachusetts, the last election provided many drivers a window into a part of the automobile repair world that they never knew existed.

Anyone who wonders what the car inspectors are plugging wires into under your dashboard when doing the annual inspection has a reason to be alarmed. That plug allows the inspection station to download the driving data from the automobile and send it to a central computer in the state inspection offices. That data can be matched with odometer data and other data to provide a true picture of that automobile usage.

But, the data is also used for automobile repairs.

Here is where the question was raised about who owns that data collected. Does it belong to the auto manufacturer which installed the black box? Or, does it belong to the driver who purchased the car?

It was discovered that auto manufacturers were only sharing their black box data with “authorized” mechanics approved to repair the manufacturer’s automobiles. In some cases, manufacturers required car owners to repair automobiles at dealerships in order to make use of the operational data being collected on a mile-to-mile and day-to-day basis. This “data monopoly” prevented the car owners from taking their car to be serviced at other mechanics where they might save significant amounts of money.

In the Massachusetts vote, drivers were given the opportunity to clearly claim use of that data and break the exclusivity that auto manufacturers claimed.

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The bottom line
Big data is being collected about your driving right now. If you have a new car with a box that any mechanic or inspector can plug into, you are being tracked. If you are carrying a cell phone with any kind of geo-location function or GPS, you are being tracked. And, you are probably being tracked in other ways that I am not even covering in this short piece.

These developments have significant privacy concerns besides the economic concerns that were highlighted when voters in Massachusetts claimed use of their own data collected by their automobiles. But, drivers who were surprised by fines for driving out of state in a rental vehicle were furious, even though the rental agreement (that few read) allowed the company to track their vehicle. And, the husband found to have been blocks from his house when he claimed to be away on business fought disclosure of that data, but lost.

This is an issue that will stay on the front burner for drivers as they learn more about how the data being collected about them are being used.