For a technology writer like me, technological advances that push the envelope and do something no one has done before are occupational nirvana. The downside of such advances, however, is that they often materialize before we have found a practical and safe way to use them.
Associated Press (AP) reports that German researchers have developed a new technology that lets drivers steer cars using only their eyes. Raul Rojas, an artificial intelligence researcher at Berlin's Free University, said the technology tracks a driver's eye movement and, in turn, steers the car in whatever direction they're looking.
The technology, called eyeDriver, lets the car drive up to 31 mph, says AP, which also notes that “questions about safety and practicability abound: What about looking at a cute girl next to the road for a few seconds? Not to mention taking phone calls or typing a text while driving.”
Indeed, the very prospect of focusing on some bikini-clad beauty walking by the beach gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “if looks could kill.” The researchers counter by saying that vehicles with this technology would be “equipped with GPS navigation, scores of cameras, lasers and scanners that enable it to drive by itself.” So presumably the car would keep you from running up onto the curb and causing untold mayhem. But if the vehicle continues on the road, the driver still remains distracted, and if the car suddenly “stops itself” to avoid the crash, anyone following the vehicle is likely to crash into it from behind.
AP says one compromise is a mode that has the car driving on its own, basing its decisions on input from scanners and cameras, and only requires the driver to give guidance at crossroads. “The car stops at intersections and asks the driver for guidance on which road to take," the researchers say. A few seconds of attention with the driver looking in his desired direction gets the car moving again. But suppose his attention is still glued on that young lady—or on that cute little four-year-old with his mommy?
There are just so many holes in this idea that it makes you wonder how any insurer could possibly assess the risk. One can only guess that if this technology, which involves the driver wearing a helmet that has a camera on top to look at the street and another that constantly monitors the driver’s eye movements, ever sees commercial reality, the premiums will be through the roof.
How sensitive the technology is to eye movements is another key question, because our eyes typically make many tiny movements in a very short period of time. So how long do I have to stare before the car gets the idea that I want to turn right? And do I stare at the street itself, or the street sign post, or the near or far corner—and look at that huge dog over there on the left! At this point, I see the system’s CPU shuddering and smoking in frustration.
This reminds me a lot of a similar technology touted some years ago for camcorders. The idea was that the user could look into the viewfinder, see a Windows-like screen around the subject being viewed, and give commands by simply looking at the appropriate spot on the menu. This, too, sounded really cool, but I don’t hear much about it any more.
The truth is that we are not used to staring for prolonged periods of time to accomplish car maneuvers, and our brains—in this age of rampant attention deficit disorder—may well refuse to cooperate even if we remember to stare at the appropriate time and at the appropriate spot. Like many cool ideas, this is just impractical, and undoubtedly uninsurable.
If this technology ever gets going, though, it will be a sight to behold. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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