Enterprise

The infrastructure law just gave a boost to controversial driver-monitoring AI tech companies

"If you're absolutely upset, well, the car can know that," said one maker of driver-monitoring AI, which could get a boost from the new law.

AI analyzes a car driver's ID

The driver-monitoring research mandate could be a boon for the small sector providing technologies that use AI to analyze expressions.

Image: Smart Eye AB

Tech vendors including Affectiva and Visteon call it "interior sensing." The European Commission will make it mandatory in cars, vans, trucks and buses next year. Now, AI-based driver-monitoring systems used to detect whether a driver is paying attention to the road or showing signs of drowsiness or distraction will be the subject of research funded by the newly signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The law's $1.2 trillion budget appropriates more than $200 million each year from 2022 through 2026 to fund a variety of vehicle safety provisions, from rules requiring automatic braking features to systems that automatically steer cars back into their lanes. These sorts of semi-autonomous vehicle technologies are already installed in some vehicles on the road right now. But the law also funds research of a far more controversial form of AI: driver-monitoring systems.

According to the law, the goal is to reduce driver distraction to create safer roads. It calls on the secretary of transportation to conduct research within three years after the law is enacted to study the use of driver-monitoring systems to minimize or eliminate driver distraction or disengagement, and to limit complacency when drivers are behind the wheel of vehicles with automated features. After the study is complete, a research report will be submitted to Congress.

If the transportation secretary determines that rules related to possible requirements of driver-monitoring tech are necessary, the law calls for them to be established within two years of submission of the report. And if the secretary concludes no new driver-monitoring tech rules are necessary? Another report is due to explain why not.

More immediately, the law mandates use of tech to monitor for signs of drunk driving-related impairment, though it is unclear what form of technology legislators have in mind.

The driver-monitoring research mandate could be a boon for the small sector providing technologies that use AI to analyze people's facial expressions or behavioral cues in an attempt to decipher their emotions and moods or levels of distraction, stress or anger while driving. Those companies got a boost in 2019 when the EU said it would make distraction-detection systems mandatory in vehicles next year.

In advance of the new law, publicly held driver-monitoring tech firm Smart Eye acquired Affectiva in May for $73.5 million. "I think this kind of will energize and divert a lot of resources both in academia and industry to continue to do the basic research, but also productize solutions for driver monitoring," said Rana el Kaliouby, Affectiva's co-founder and CEO and deputy CEO of Smart Eye.

Safety promises and surveillance risks

According to Affectiva's website, the company develops AI software that improves road safety through "a deep understanding of what's happening in a vehicle." Visteon says its driver-monitoring system, which incorporates infrared cameras, facial recognition and AI to gauge driver distraction, drowsiness and emotion by detecting head movements and eye gaze, makes "for a safe, autonomous future." The company did not respond to a request to comment for this story.

Liz O'Sullivan, CEO of AI compliance and governance vendor Parity, said the mandated driver-monitoring research will affect the market for attention-detection software. "We'll see new infusions of investor cash into sentiment analysis companies, whose science is dubious at best," said O'Sullivan, who argued that tie-ins between auto companies and AI makers could be tough to untangle even if they create problems.

Sketch of people in car with AI O'Sullivan and others warned of a new level of privacy infringements and surveillance normalization.Image: Smart Eye AB

Automakers such as Lexus have featured earlier forms of driver-monitoring tech as far back as 2007. Smart Eye says it has partnerships with 13 automakers including BMW, which delivered models equipped with its driver-monitoring system as early as 2018. Even firms like 3M are designing technologies for the emerging market. The 120-year-old company said its tape-like material made to camouflage infrared sensors "[hides] them completely from the driver's view."

Affectiva's technology uses in-car cameras that not only pick up on the direction of the driver's eye-gaze and blink-rate, but on things like head-bobbing, indicating drowsiness. Its cameras also watch what's happening in and around the driver throughout the vehicle. And Affectiva claims to decipher the driver's emotional and mental state, noting signs of anger indicating road rage.

"If you're absolutely upset, well, the car can know that," said el Kaliouby.

O'Sullivan and others warned of a new level of privacy infringements and surveillance normalization.

"There's always the chance that car makers will see this as a coming trend and implement the feature as a default in their new cars long before any needed privacy protective legislative policies come to pass," said O'Sullivan. "The consequences of increasing the accessible vector of monitoring have historically fallen disproportionately on marginalized communities, and this latest research, should it ever be transformed into policy, would surely contribute to the same effect. The tech itself is guaranteed to fail in unpredictable ways, and to function poorly on anyone whose eye characteristics or behaviors fall outside of the 'average.'"

Nandita Sampath, a policy analyst with Consumer Reports focused on algorithmic bias and accountability issues, also warned that data collected for driver-monitoring systems could be employed for unintended purposes or "used in other sorts of algorithms that make other decisions about people." Though data privacy is mentioned very rarely throughout the infrastructure law, it is mentioned in relation to driver-distraction monitoring. If rules are established as a result of the driver-monitoring research, the law briefly states they "shall incorporate appropriate privacy and data security safeguards."

O'Sullivan called the driver-monitoring research plan "typical surveillance creep," noting, "it's pretty hard to see how this could be done in a privacy-preserving way." She pointed to the potential for data gathered by in-car sensing cameras to be subpoenaed by law enforcement, for example. "The cameras will record data that's very appealing for law enforcement subpoena, and it's unlikely that any legal protections, should they ever materialize, would exclude law enforcement requests," she said.

When Affectiva's system is deployed it performs analysis in the car as it picks up on data signals, but does not store the data afterwards, said el Kaliouby. "No video gets recorded; no data gets recorded," she said.

If you're absolutely upset, well, the car can know that."

However, that may not be true of other driver-monitoring technologies, and it is unclear what sorts of agreements driver-monitoring tech firms have or will have with automakers in regards to data ownership and privacy controls. Either way, such technologies could have a profound impact on how people behave in their vehicles.

Ultimately, when it comes to AI technologies claiming to detect people's emotions or level of distraction based on facial or other body language, Sampath said "the risk of installing that outweigh the benefits." She also questioned the scientific basis for claims that AI can accurately gauge a person's inner moods. Sampath and other critics also question whether emotion-detection AI can "work differently on people with different skin colors or a disability that manifests in their face a particular way and that gets flagged as distracted driving."

Affectiva's technology is designed to detect and analyze complex mental states, el Kaliouby said. "You cannot map a single facial expression to a single mood or emotion; you have to incorporate multiple signals," she said. Affectiva trained its driver-monitoring AI using video of 11.5 million people in 90 countries with their permission, and she emphasized the cross-cultural diversity of the data set used to build the system.

As the details of the infrastructure law's safety provisions emerge, there is bound to be heightened scrutiny of some of those components of the legislation. As far as el Kaliouby is concerned, the law is just another sign of the impending ubiquity of driver-monitoring tech.

"It's going to be like the airbag or the seatbelt," she said.

Policy

Musk’s texts reveal what tech’s most powerful people really want

From Jack Dorsey to Joe Rogan, Musk’s texts are chock-full of überpowerful people, bending a knee to Twitter’s once and (still maybe?) future king.

“Maybe Oprah would be interested in joining the Twitter board if my bid succeeds,” one text reads.

Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salesforce has long been enterprise tech’s golden child. The company said everything customers wanted to hear and did everything investors wanted to see: It produced robust, consistent growth from groundbreaking products combined with an aggressive M&A strategy and a cherished culture, all operating under the helm of a bombastic, but respected, CEO and team of well-coiffed executives.

Dreamforce is the embodiment of that success. Every year, alongside frustrating San Francisco residents, the over-the-top celebration serves as a battle cry to the enterprise software industry, reminding everyone that Marc Benioff’s mighty fiefdom is poised to expand even deeper into your corporate IT stack.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Policy

The US and EU are splitting on tech policy. That’s putting the web at risk.

A conversation with Cédric O, the former French minister of state for digital.

“With the difficulty of the U.S. in finding political agreement or political basis to legislate more, we are facing a risk of decoupling in the long term between the EU and the U.S.”

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cédric O, France’s former minister of state for digital, has been an advocate of Europe’s approach to tech and at the forefront of the continent’s relations with U.S. giants. Protocol caught up with O last week at a conference in New York focusing on social media’s negative effects on society and the possibilities of blockchain-based protocols for alternative networks.

O said watching the U.S. lag in tech policy — even as some states pass their own measures and federal bills gain momentum — has made him worry about the EU and U.S. decoupling. While not as drastic as a disentangling of economic fortunes between the West and China, such a divergence, as O describes it, could still make it functionally impossible for companies to serve users on both sides of the Atlantic with the same product.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Latest Stories
Bulletins