Someday, maybe soon—depending on where you live, where you go, and the size of your credit card—you won’t have to worry about paying attention on the road. You’ll have a robot to do that for you. Until then, sorry to say, you’ll have to keep your brain, eyes, hands, and feet in line and on the job.
This is clearly a problem, because, according a recent study, approximately everybody looks at their phone when they should be looking at the road. We’ve seen all sorts of efforts to end distracted driving in recent years: cars that spy on their human occupants, anti-distraction apps, legislation, sliding into your DMs. Meanwhile, the problem keeps getting worse.
Mazda thinks it has found a better way: To end distracted driving, make driving more fun. In a newly filed patent, the Japanese automaker proposes a system that would detect inattention with a combination of cameras and analysis of inputs like how long it takes the driver to move their foot from the gas to the brake. And then it might offer tips to the driver—not just to pay attention, but ways to improve their skills, to hit that corner better, or accelerate more smoothly. It could use a cabin speaker to falsely amplify the engine noise, encouraging the driver to slow down. It might even offer directions to a more engaging road, one with the curves and scenery demand more attention than a touchscreen (if that’s still possible).
This is just a patent (spotted by auto writer Bozi Tatarevic) and Mazda wouldn’t reveal any plans to make it real, but the idea jibes well with the automaker’s focus on the more carbon-based aspect of driving. “We still believe fully in the idea that the most powerful computer in the car is an attentive driver, and that the journey is as important as the destination,” says Mazda rep Jeremy Barnes.
That may seem old-fashioned or even obtuse—maybe Mazda just fell behind on the computer stuff and doesn’t think it’s worth trying to catch up—but the logic of this proposed system lines up with more academic approaches to the topic.
“We’re looking for alternative ways to keep the driver, regardless of what their role in the future may or may not be, engaged to a level that they need to be,” says Bryan Reimer, a human factors expert at MIT who studies distracted driving. That role certainly will change as automated systems like Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac Super Cruise infiltrate more and more cars, but the need for human supervision won’t be fully stamped out for a long time.
It’s clear by now that a blanket “Do Not Text and Drive” admonishment has little effect, especially since the vast majority of the time, looking at your phone doesn’t lead to a crash. But a system that can detect when your attention wavers—that knows when it’s mostly OK to look away, and when it’s really not—just might work. Especially if it can convince you—rather than scold you—to draw your eyes back to the road.
Mazda isn’t the only company looking to deploy smarter robots while keeping humans at the wheel. Toyota, long wary of autonomous systems, is working on “guardian angel” tech that will only step in when you’re about to step in it. Lamborghini thinks artificial intelligence could teach you to have more fun driving your supercar.
So yeah, some people can look forward to robots that take the wheel. Others can look forward to robots who make taking the wheel a lot more fun.