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Wearable Tech and the Autonomous Car

The idea of the autonomous car has been speculated upon nearly since the automobile itself was invented, with General Motors going so far as to develop prototypes using embedded roadways to guide cars way back in the late 1930s. Advances in technology allowing true autonomy have only recently been adopted, however, and when Tesla introduced their Autopilot feature in 2013 that enabled drivers to let the car itself keep the vehicle within highway lanes as well as maintain and anticipate distances to other road users, the idea that the world could have actual self-driving cars entered the mainstream. Even though Tesla themselves advertised the system as being “driver assistance” rather than replacing the human behind the wheel, the path towards driverless cars seemed more than ever to be an achievable goal, and as Autopilot continually evolved and became more and more sophisticated, Tesla founder Elon Musk insisted that “Full Self Driving” capability would be a reality by the end of 2020. Although Musk has millions of miles of testing data showing the vehicles to be safe in operating in autonomous mode from which to draw these conclusions, the issue that is hard to ignore is the all-too-public fly in the ointment—viral videos showing cars being crashed (sometimes fatally) while being controlled by software because of one variable Tesla cannot account for: human behavior. Too many people ignoring the warnings to keep hands on the wheel, or continually monitor the system means that until autonomy is truly perfected, the spectre of human stupidity will trump the current levels of technology.

It is here that perhaps wearable technology can help bridge the gap between “nearly” and “fully” autonomous, however. The issues with radar- and lidar-based autonomy stem from the ability of a machine to recognize and anticipate dangerous situations around a vehicle, which remain challenges for AI programmers and hardware developers, but the human interface concerns resulting from poor decision making by owners could possibly be alleviated by having the drivers of vehicles be forced to actually operate the system within the parameters as required by the designers. A simple wearable tech device, whether it be a smart watch or glasses, could provide monitoring data to the vehicle driving ecosystem and allow certain features to be used only when the driver is capable of using them. For example, there has been evidence of owners turning on Autopilot and falling asleep—completely contradicting the manufacturers’ instructions—and trusting the system to keep the car safe on a highway, inevitably crashing when human intervention was required and unavailable. And so it may be saving people from their own stupidity, but a device that monitors sleep could issue warnings to the driver or even possibly instruct the car to pull safely to the side of the road and avoid catastrophe. Similarly, smart glasses could detect where the attention of the operator is, and if attention is not paid to the road ahead frequently enough, the system could again issue warnings, disable Autopilot features, or take further action.

As current issues in the world have so glaringly illustrated, technology by itself is no match for the resistance of people to actually use it. So perhaps, then, technology could well be used to try to at least mitigate some of the ill-advised decisions made by those people, and allow for maturation and development until the applied science is foolproof. Or at least as close as we can get.

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