Eye-tracking can prevent the dream of self-driving cars from ending in a deadly nightmare

September 6, 2018

Technology entrepreneur and Smart Eye CEO Martin Krantz explains why eye-tracking technology is critical for realizing the potential of autonomous vehicles.

It’s hard not to get excited about a world dominated by self-driving cars and thanks to advances in AI and other technologies, several manufacturers are taking steps that will help make that vision a reality. But despite the many advances in self-driving cars, I’m growing increasingly concerned that our shared dream of fully autonomous vehicles is in peril.

A string of high-profile accidents, combined with some misleading declarations, have raised doubts about the promise of self-driving cars. If we aren’t careful, frightened consumers, angry regulators, and cautious manufacturers could stop more than a decade’s worth of momentum in its tracks.

A big part of the problem is a lack of understanding about self-driving technology, which has been fed in part by a flurry of articles that have convinced some over-enthusiastic consumers it’s okay for them to take their hands off the wheel.

What people seem to forget – or never knew in the first place – is that “self-driving” actually encompasses several different levels of autonomy.

Specifically, the road to fully autonomous driving is divided into a six-level scale (developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers, SAE) where Level 0 refers to no automation and Level 5 refers to total autonomy, the world of robot taxis where we are no longer drivers, but passengers in our own cars.

‘Autopilot’ in name only

It’s easy for the average consumer to be fooled into thinking we’re close to the end of our journey toward a world of fully autonomous cars. But in reality, we are much closer to the beginning of a voyage that will likely take at least another decade.

Sure, production of the first Level 3 car is likely a few quarters away, but it will still take years before a critical mass of such vehicles fill our roadways.

Currently, most cars casually referred to as “self-driving” by the average consumer are only at Level 2 on the SAE scale. They feature advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel for short periods of time without worrying the car will drift to the next lane.

But Level 2 vehicles require human drivers to pay attention and be ready to react at any time – something that, tragically, some drivers have failed to understand.

Sadly, the promise of full autonomy is so captivating, many want to believe it’s closer than it is. As a result, some overzealous drivers are making Level 5 driving decisions in a Level 2 environment – sometimes with deadly outcomes.

Eye-tracking: a must-have safety feature

That’s why driver monitoring systems with advanced eye-tracking technologies are more important than ever.

Smart Eye’s technology, for example, works by combining cameras that capture infrared light signals reflected from the eye’s cornea with advanced software built on intelligent algorithms. This allows our system and others like it to track where drivers are looking and thus determine whether or not their eyes are actually focused on the road.

By monitoring whether drivers are paying attention even if their cars have autonomous driving capabilities, eye-tracking can prevent drivers from letting their self-driving dreams turn into deadly nightmares.

The technology is especially important as we move from driving autonomy Level 2 to Level 4, which entails redefining and retraining our driving habits. By warning drivers who are too distracted or fail to keep their eyes on the road, eye-tracking systems should be considered a must-have safety feature for any manufacturer with autonomous driving ambitions.

Fortunately, automakers are the biggest cheerleaders for helping us reach a truly self-driving future. Many are already working with Smart Eye and others to introduce eye-tracking into new models. We recently added China’s Geely to the growing list of premium car brands ready to invest in eye-tracking aided autonomous driving systems. And we expect more exciting announcements in the not too distant future.

A safe self-driving transition

We also mustn’t overlook the massive regulatory, safety, and infrastructure changes involved with the shift to fully autonomous driving.

The European Commission took an important step forward on this front in May when it announced plans for legislation to require all new cars to be fitted with advanced safety features by the early 2020’s, including systems to monitor drivers. Hopefully, the benefits of eye-tracking technology will be shared by car drivers outside the EU as well.

Despite my concerns, I remain as excited as the next driver about the promise and possibilities of a fully autonomous future. And it’s a privilege to help contribute to a paradigm shift that will redefine the relationship between human and machine on roads across the world.

That being said, we want to ensure the transition occurs as safely as possible. We shouldn’t push too hard on the accelerator or let the hype of a self-driving future distract us from keeping our eyes on the road ahead.

Martin Krantz is co-founder and CEO of Smart Eye, a leading eye-tracking technology provider based in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Written by: Martin Krantz