When driving meets mobility meets big data

Two interesting articles I saw in the news this week got me thinking about where things might go in the intersection between driving, IT and ethics.

One article, part of a series about the world before the outbreak of the First World War, mentioned that there were more road-accident related deaths in 1913 than in 2012. This is despite a 20 mph speed limit and the fact that there are apparently now 80 times more cars on the roads.
Another article described how Spanish engineers are working on a smart seat belt which can monitor the heart rate of drivers and alert them if they seem at risk of falling asleep at the wheel.

Of course there are many reasons why there are, proportionately, fewer deaths on the roads these days. In 1912 there was no driving or MoT test, roads were generally not asphalted, tyre and brake technology was nowhere near to where it is today and cars lacked even the most basic of the safety features that we now take for granted. Even in my lifetime huge steps forward have been made: for example the introduction of air-bags and the mandating of the wearing of seatbelts and the use of infant and child seats.

And the process goes on. Since 2011 the legal requirement has existed for all new vehicles to be fitted with daytime running lights; previously a Swedish idiosyncrasy only seen on Volvos and Saabs.

However, I think the focus is now changing. Up to now the major advances have been in mechanics and engineering. Looking ahead, it seems to me that the next leaps will be driven by IT. Already dashboard recording cameras are becoming commonplace as are GPS recorder systems, both frequently offered by insurance companies as means to offer lower premiums for, for example, young or newly qualified drivers.

The question then arises, how long will it take before this is all integrated into a full, flight-recorder style, black box keeping a record of driver view, driving location, behaviour, car serviceability and even driver biometrics? And will we get to the point where such devices become a mandated standard like the daytime lights? And if this does happen, who should have access to the data collect and should it even be available in real time via car fitted mobile internet connections?

For example:

  • Insurers use this data to drivers to create bespoke premiums based on an analysis of driving behaviour (thus, presumably, motivating individuals to drive more safely and take fewer risks)?
  • Could police use the data, not just to support 'after the event' investigations but, through real time access, even intercept individuals who are driving dangerously before an accident takes place?
  • Could vehicle manufacturers and maintainers have access on the basis that such data might be useful in planning the next steps in vehicle safety? Real time access might even allow vehicles that are in a dangerous condition to be forcibly brought to a (safe) halt so that the issues can be resolved.

With the parallel advances being made in the ability to manage and analyse large volumes of data, the possibilities seem almost endless.

Of course the flip side is the ethical questions all this raises around the impact, or potential impact, on the individual. Looking at this from a historical point of view, when this sort of issue has come up, safety seems, almost invariably, to win out. I am old enough (just) to remember how outraged some individuals were at being forced to wear seat belts. I’ve seen film of drivers being interviewed who felt that limiting drink-driving was pretty much the end of civilisation. I have no doubt that many felt the same which the driving or MoT test was first introduced.

However, there is a difference. To date the safety measures have mainly impacted on personal liberty, taking away the individual’s choice not to take driving lessons, not to maintain their car, not to fasten their seatbelt and so on. But the sorts of next steps I outline above, given that they involves the collection of large volumes of what might be considered personal data, could be seen as being more of a personal privacy than a personal liberty issue. Drink-driving legislation, mandatory seatbelts, driving tests and daytime lights all show that safety tends to trump liberty. But does safety trump personal privacy in the same way?

One final point of course is the question of driverless technology. Already this is being piloted. There is a long way to go on this, but ultimately this might take the need for human involvement in the driving process out of human hands. Would that then render the sorts of issues raised above no longer relevant anyway? It will be fascinating to find out.

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About the author

Adam Davison MBCS CITP has an MSc in IT from the University of Aston and has filled a variety of senior IT strategy roles for organisations such as E.ON and Esso.

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