Tesla not transparent about purpose of driver-facing camera
Tesla cars are equipped with driver facing cameras that are positioned on the rear view mirror of the vehicle.
Tesla customers have enquired as to what this camera is for and the company founder, Elon Musk assured drivers back in April 2020 that the camera was “not turned on” and only “meant for vandalism monitoring in a robotaxi future”. This in itself doesn’t make much sense, as how effective is a driver facing camera if the car is vandalised on the other side of the car or out of view of an interior camera?
The truth behind the camera has now been exposed and Tesla has admitted that the true purpose of a driver-facing camera near the rear-view in the new Tesla Model 3 is to monitor driver behaviour to make sure that the driver pays attention to the road.
The company claims that this will help to address safety concerns after a number of people have died while driving Tesla’s as they were relying too heavily on the autopilot.
Independent decoders have examined the onboard computers and imaging technology and discovered that the camera was, in fact, not turned off as Musk said, but has been turned on all along.
The data captured from the camera is supposedly only circulated to the internal Tesla systems which then uses the data to track your driving behaviour and attentiveness. It will spot if you are using your phone while driving, for example. If it is already doing this, what other images or video is it capturing that can compromise the driver and passengers personal behaviour.
Customers are being made aware of the camera's true purpose in a series of rolling updates. In the new software update for the Model 3 and Model Y, it says,
“the cabin camera above your rearview mirror can now detect and alert driver inattentiveness while Autopilot is engaged”.
“Camera data does not leave the car itself, which means the system cannot save or transmit information unless data sharing is enabled.”
Tesla drivers and potential customers have reacted strongly to the news on Twitter, with one customer saying they planned to trade their car in, as they “don’t need to be spied on”.
Another twitter contributor likened it to Tesla’s in-house insurance company, suggesting the company might use the information to adjust premiums or “sell that data for kajillions of dollars to other insurance providers”.
Tesla is not alone when it comes to this covert monitoring of driver behaviour. Subaru’s latest Forester and Outback SUVs also watch drivers to make sure they are keeping an eye on the road. The system will also warn the driver to pay attention to the road if they look down or away from the windscreen for more than a couple of seconds. General Motors and Ford Motors also use driver-facing cameras for the same purpose when the car is in semi-autonomous mode.
This kind of imaging technology will become widespread in future autonomous vehicles and there may be an argument for some of the features, but it is also a worry to many because of the privacy concerns and implications of such technology.
There is a huge difference between Tesla and the other car manufacturers because they were honest and clear about the purpose of such cameras, unlike Tesla. Subaru, for example, was clear about the purpose of its in-car cameras, telling customers that the system “monitors the driver for signs of inattention or sleepiness and if detected, warns them to refocus their attention”.
Drivers don’t mind this technology if they are made aware that it is there and the true purpose. They can then mitigate any privacy concerns, but Musk’s line about vandalism in a future “robotaxi” is far from transparent.
Justin Kavanagh is a recognised leader in automotive intelligence and vehicle data supply to the entire motor industry. He has almost 20 years experience in building systems from the ground up. As the Managing Director of Vehicle Management System, he understands the need and importance of trustworthy and reliable vehicle history and advice to both the trade and the public.
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