Driving Dystopia: Tesla Activates Driver Monitoring Protocols

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There’s a small camera just above the rear-view mirrors installed in newer Tesla models. If you haven’t noticed it before, it wasn’t of any particular relevance. But it certainly is now.

Tesla has decided to activate driver monitoring protocols in an effort to avoid liabilities whenever Autopilot fails and motorists unexpectedly find themselves merging off a bridge. After rummaging through the wreckage and collecting errant body parts, investigators can use the vehicle’s camera data to see what was happening moments before the car hurled itself into the ravine. If it turns out that the driver was totally alert and did their utmost to wrangle the vehicle as it went haywire, a colossal payout for the surviving family is assured. But if that camera catches them slipping for a microsecond, the manufacturer has all it needs to shift the blame onto the deceased driver. 

While you’ll have to excuse the hyperbole, this is effectively the purpose of these driver-monitoring cameras and it’s the main reason they’ve been cropping up in increasingly more automobiles of late. Both Ford and General Motors both use them in conjunction with their driver-assistance packages — though they function a bit differently — and they’ve been recently endorsed by the world’s largest automotive lobby.

But Tesla CEO Elon Musk had previously hinted that such measures were unnecessary, despite government regulators and safety organizations suggesting that having a driver’s own car constantly harass and monitor them for attention was a sure-fire way to save lives. If you can call that living.

Instead, Tesla’s vehicles marched onward with Autopilot remaining active based on steering inputs. If the car notices the operator hasn’t touched the wheel in a while, it issues a reminder to retake control and ultimately deactivates itself in the safest way it can manage if that doesn’t happen. It seems a completely rational solution, however, the brand’s own marketing has convinced many of its stupidest consumers that its products are self-driving. So we still ended up seeing news reports of people crashing cars because they decided to take it easy in the back seat.

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Things changed on Tuesday when a Twitter user posted software release notes on a recently acquired Model Y. The vehicle notified him that the interior camera “can now detect and alert driver inattentiveness while Autopilot is engaged. Camera data does not leave the car itself, which means the system cannot save or transmit information unless data sharing is enabled.”

Keep in mind that the “unless data sharing is enabled” caveat can be changed overnight via terms of service update. There’s also nothing stopping the government from making that mandatory in the future as a way to prevent motorists from using their phones, for example. Let’s not forget that Tesla’s leadership claimed there was no real reason to have onboard driver monitoring in the past. Any subsequent promises that having the ability to monitor you in real-time is a line that won’t be crossed without your permission are absolutely meaningless.

I speak to people about this all the time to take the public temperature and the response is often that they don’t have anything to hide so they don’t care. Sometimes they become indignant that I would even care about their privacy. But they are correct in their assumption that we’re not terribly interesting and there’s likely nobody paying close attention to the average individual.

Of course, that’s not really the point.

As trivial as someone watching me pick my teeth or chase an itch down to my crotch happens to be, I can have that done on the subway for substantially less money. The whole point of purchasing a vehicle is to have a mobile sanctuary and alternative to public transit. You pay thousands of dollars for that privileges and we’re getting dangerously close to a point where that’s no longer going to be the case. Automakers are starting to act like they still own the vehicles after they sell them to us and using are them to harvest our data for profit. The amount of information manufacturers track on your vehicle has become genuinely alarming and if you think the same thing won’t happen with onboard camera systems, I believe you are gravely mistaken.

What do we get in exchange? A vague, highly questionable promise of safety.

Unsettlingly, other outlets seem to be buying into the premise that this will be a game-changer in terms of safety. There is no shortage of publications completely ignoring the fact that advanced driving aids actively encourage drivers to tune out and are often flummoxed by typical roadway inconveniences. They’re not up to snuff and the preferred solution isn’t to remove them from vehicles until they’re made better, but actively harass and surveil the poor bastard who was conned into paying extra money for a feature he thought would let the car drive itself. Even Elektrek didn’t seem all that alarmed about the patch notes, despite previously writing about a hacker that proved the system could be momentarily fooled by taping up a photograph of one’s face.

It’s not stupid that companies are working on these technologies, people clearly want them. But it’s absolutely horrifying that we’re still supposed to pretend that they’ve arrived at completion when they all require invasions of our privacy to function correctly. Tesla’s new driver monitoring even coincides with its updated Tesla Vision system that ditches radar — something we worried would make Autopilot less effective.

It’s bewildering to me why we’re putting up with such overt nonsense and have the audacity to call it progress. Driving-facing cameras exist exclusively to protect automakers from being liable for the failure of their own half-backed technologies. They may someday also have other uses. But none of them will be of any real benefit to the driver until motorists have exclusive and assured rights regarding exactly how their data is managed and shared.

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