September 27, 2021
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Legislation would mandate driver-monitoring tech in every car

A surprised woman gleefully lets go of her car's steering wheel.
Enlarge / A woman test drives Cadillac’s Super Cruise hands-free driver-assistance feature in 2018. Super Cruise includes a camera-based eye-tracking technology to ensure drivers are watching the road.

Three United States senators on Monday proposed legislation that would require all new cars in the United States to have driver-monitoring systems within six years. Two of the legislation’s sponsors—Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)—recently sent a letter to federal regulators expressing concern about last week’s fatal Tesla crash in Texas.

It’s not clear how a 2019 Tesla Model S wound up crashing into a tree at high speed in a residential neighborhood outside Houston. Police reported that neither of the vehicle’s two passengers was in the driver’s seat: one was in the front passenger seat, while the other was sitting in a rear seat.

The crash has drawn more attention to the long-running debate over adding driver-monitoring technology to cars. A few carmakers have already adopted robust driver-monitoring technology. Cadillac’s Super Cruise driver-assistance technology, for example, uses a driver-facing camera to verify that the driver’s eyes are focused on the road. Drivers can take their hands off the wheel while Super Cruise is active. But if they stop looking at the road ahead, Super Cruise will warn them and eventually disengage.

Tesla vehicles use a more rudimentary technique to measure driver engagement: a torque sensor on the steering wheel. Unfortunately, hands on the wheel are no guarantee that a driver is paying attention. Also, torque sensors are easily defeated by hanging a weight from the steering wheel.

Legislation would mandate driver monitoring by 2027

Safety advocates have argued that any car with an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) should have a driver-monitoring system. That’s to combat the risk that drivers will start to trust their ADAS so much that they stop paying attention to the road. And many argue that a Tesla-style torque sensor isn’t good enough. Drivers’ failure to focus on the road likely contributed to three Autopilot deaths over the last five years, as well as a death caused by a prototype Uber self-driving vehicle in 2018.

And of course, distracted driving is a problem that extends well beyond Tesla or any manufacturer’s ADAS. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that distracted driving is responsible for more than 3,000 deaths every year.

The Markey/Blumenthal bill, also co-sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), would require the Secretary of Transportation to draft rules requiring all vehicles to have driver-monitoring technology installed. The final version of the rule would have to be ready within four years, and it would give automakers another two years to comply. If the legislation passed this year, every new car would need to adopt some version of the technology by 2027.

All three senators are members of the House Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which is holding a hearing on Tuesday about the future of automotive safety.

Too much?

Requiring DMS for all vehicles, not just ADAS ones, might seem like a dramatic step. However, ADAS will only become more popular and more capable over the next six years. So many, perhaps even most, vehicles are likely to have some kind of ADAS by 2027. Indeed, cars in 2027 will likely handle even more of the driving task than today’s best systems. That will make it even more challenging for drivers to pay attention while their car does most of the driving.

European officials have been more aggressive than their American counterparts about requiring driver monitoring. Colin Barnden, an auto industry expert based in the United Kingdom, told Ars that recently enacted European rules require driver-monitoring systems in all new car models introduced from mid-2024 onwards. European carmakers get a two-year grace period to continue selling car models approved before the deadline, but every new car sold would need a DMS starting in mid-2026.

Separately, Barnden said that Euro NCAP, a government-backed group that rates cars for safety, would require cars to have a driver-monitoring system in order to earn a five-star safety rating starting in 2023 or 2024.