2020 is just a month old but it is definitely looking to be a big year for companies developing in-cabin monitoring solutions.

When walking around North Hall at CES this year, one couldn’t help but notice that the hype of fully autonomous vehicles had faded significantly. Over the past two or three years, you couldn’t throw a dart at CES without hitting a LiDAR or camera company’s booth claiming to have the solution to getting level 5 AVs on the road sooner than the next. Taking center stage at CES 2020 was the emergence of tech companies and OEMs alike turning their focus and algorithms towards the inside of the car. Advanced driver monitoring, occupant detection, and customizing the in-cabin experience were just a few of the applications being showcased.

The jury is still out on when the rise of the robo taxis will come and we see a Bird vs. Lime-esque war on who the go-to platform will be. Until then, humans will remain in the driving loop as ADAS systems become more widely deployed fueling the need for more robust driver monitoring systems (DMS). Some driver alert systems such as the torque sensor in the steering wheel, have been around since the early 2000’s but relying solely on this type of system has proven to be inadequate. The most notable cases have been the fatal Tesla crashes which relied on the steering wheel torque sensor in its AutoPilot system to determine driver attention. The NTSB criticized Tesla for using this approach in a 2017 recommendation to update their DMS.

In 2017, General Motors’ Super Cruise was the first DMS to use infrared emitters and cameras to ensure the driver’s eyes are open and alert. Additional automakers have begun to follow suit. In Japan, Nissan’s ProPilot 2.0 system is using an infrared DMS and Ford will have a similar system on their recently-announced Mustang Mach-E. Starting this year, the European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP) will feature advanced DMS as part of its program. Additionally, in 2022-2024, all cars sold in the European Union will be required to include systems to monitor drivers’ attention.

If this is any indication of where the industry is heading, in-cabin monitoring is not going to stop at the driver which means the sensor will not be tied to the steering column. More safety regulations are beginning to take shape in other parts of the world. The Helping Overcome Trauma for Children Alone in Rear Seats (HOT CARS) Act in the U.S. Congress will require automakers to have a detection and/or alert system prevent children and animals from being needlessly injured or killed when alone in vehicles. In late 2019, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA, Agency) advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM, Notice) seeking public comment on issues related to a requirement for a rear seat belt warning system. In the notice, NHTSA states that:

Rear seat warning systems that employ occupant detection have potential advantages over systems that do not utilize it. With occupant detection, a warning system can provide more informative warnings. The system can determine whether any seats are occupied by an unbelted occupant, as opposed to simply notifying the driver which or how many belts, if any, are fastened. Such systems are also better able to appropriately target audible warnings or longer-duration visual warnings (enhanced warnings).

Occupant detection and classification systems can both improve the ability of the systems to accurately discern seat occupancy but also to minimize false positives which could increase annoyance of users. There is no current timeline on when these standards will become law, but automakers should begin to take notice of how these regulations will affect their bottom line.

In addition, there is a significant cost saving benefit to car makers electing to use optical systems for occupancy rather than pressure based sensors.

To hedge against the inevitability of government-mandated safety technologies, automakers should look to source solutions that can combine existing applications with the ability to comply with future regulations. The exact cost of systems such DMS, seat pressure sensors, and capacitive sensors in the steering wheel are proprietary, but one can assume that being able to combine just a few of these can have a huge financial impact. Consolidating as many of these applications into one sensor is the most efficient way to ensure compliance while maintaining, or even reducing total costs. Otherwise, automakers will find themselves dealing with an even more fragmented supply chain and putting out even more RFPs to keep up with demand. A future-proof scalable sensor solution will essentially be the Holy Grail of the in-cabin monitoring space.

2020 is just a month old but it is definitely looking to be a big year for companies developing in-cabin monitoring solutions. As these companies mature, expect to see major partnerships between startups and Tier 1s and perhaps even some market consolidation as competition heats up in the new frontier of automotive innovation.

We can’t wait!

One reason for the anticipation of autonomous vehicles

A year ago, Waymo CEO John Krafcik told a crowd at the Wall Street Journal’s D.Live tech conference that it will be decades before fully autonomous vehicles are widespread. Even then, there will be serious constraints to the vehicles depending on certain conditions (rain, snow, construction, etc.). The same sentiment was echoed last month by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; a once vehement supporter of level 5 vehicles. What automakers and tech giants alike once promised to be zipping around without steering wheels by 2021 now seems like a pipedream to those on the outside.

One huge reason for the anticipation of autonomous vehicles is the promise that these AI-run vehicles will eventually be safer that a human driver. Widespread deployment of fully autonomous vehicles would, in theory, put a huge dent in the lives lost each year to traffic accidents. Potentially being the greatest public health success of our generation. From the beginning of the “autonocraze”, saving lives was the number one driver behind the lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. Talking points emphasizing the importance of safety have echoed statements like “[1]Nearly 36,000 lives are lost on America’s roads each year, 95% of them due to human error” or “that is the equivalent of a 747 full of passengers going down each week.”

With the myriad of technologies being developed constantly, there exists technologies that can help save lives today and put a stop to the thousands of lives lost each year.

Distracted Driving Accounts for 4,000 Deaths Each Year

[2]According to the Center for Disease Control, more teenagers die in automobile accidents than any other cause. In fact, 62% of all accidental deaths among 10-19 year olds are due to car accidents. These are some extremely disturbing statistics. Even more disturbing is the fact that 39% of teens have ridden with a teen driver who was texting and driving and 95% believe other teens have ridden with a friend who was texting while driving. These are highly preventable deaths. New advanced driver monitoring technologies are being deployed, although only in select premium models, that can do exactly that. High resolution cameras and computer vision algorithms are being used to track a driver’s head pose, where they are looking, whether their hands are on or off the wheel, and even how much they close their eyelids in order to measure alertness. These applications can provide life-saving data to the vehicle, warning alerts to the driver, or in the case of Volvo, a call to the driver to check their cognitive state, preventing a potential tragedy. As of yet, the United States has not mandated that any distracted driving detection systems be standard. However, cars sold in the European Union from 2022 onwards will be required to be fitted with a range of new safety systems as standard practice, including cameras that can detect driver drowsiness and attention.

Child Heatstroke

[3]The number of child casualties as a result of heatstroke in 2019 reached a record high of 51 children, undoubtedly a heartbreaking issue and potentially the most preventable. While safety advocates have tirelessly lobbied for regulatory framework mandating that automakers include technology to prevent these tragic events, proposed bills such as the HOT CARS Act of 2019 have gotten held up due to the lack of understanding of exactly what kind of technology should be mandated. Luckily, there are no less than a dozen companies that can provide a solution to prevent hot car deaths with or without a regulatory requirement. This past September on Capitol Hill, a group of these companies demonstrated their solutions to Congress along with several families who had lost children to hot car death who told their heartbreaking stories, all in an effort to push forward this important Act. Time will tell if this emotional demonstration will move the needle. Either way, another summer has passed without a HOT CARS bill being passed and the question remains if yet another summer will pass without a solution mandated. A group of automakers have pledged to include these technologies in their vehicles but several groups are skeptical that it will come to fruition.

While serious questions still remain about how these technologies will be implemented or regulated, it has not stopped companies from constantly innovating new solutions that can save lives. Many automakers have begun to take it upon themselves to include new safety systems such as forgotten infant alerts or driver monitoring systems. However, these are only in a select number of models today. Additionally, cars built today are on the road for an average  of 10 years so it may take up to a decade to start feeling the effects of these new technologies. Safety should not be synonymous with cost and it is imperative that these benefits are available to all consumers on the road, as quickly as possible.

[1] https://www.nhtsa.gov/traffic-deaths-2018

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/teen_drivers/index.html

[3] https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/motor-vehicle-safety-issues/hotcars/