Technology is a doubled-edged sword. The technology designed to keep drivers focused on the road or allow cars to drive themselves might actually prove to be a danger to privacy.
In this case, it’s Tesla under the microscope. The California-based EV maker relies heavily on high-definition cameras for a variety of its systems. Those cameras — and what they do and do not record — is under scrutiny these days.
In a report this week, Consumer Reports expressed reservations about how the cameras are used. According to Tesla, it uses cameras for its Autopilot semi-autonomous driving technology and its Full Self-Driving program, which is currently in beta test mode.
It also uses cameras to record drivers inside the vehicle to ensure they’re driving or monitoring the vehicle when it’s engaged in some form of self driving. It also uses a combination of the cameras as part of the vehicle’s security system, which it calls Sentry Mode. This enables the cameras to record any interactions passersby may have with a Tesla vehicle, ranging from potential break ins to keying a vehicle to admirers getting a closer look.
Tesla uses cameras to watch drivers
Consumer Reports recent story reveals Tesla’s systems meant to help ensure that drivers still pay attention to the road can be used for other purposes. These systems – some with cameras pointed at the driver – are designed to protect the privacy of vehicle occupants.
But now certain Tesla vehicles now record and transmit video footage of drivers and passengers from in-car cameras. The magazine noted Tesla officials recently said the company studies some footage recorded from these cameras after the fact as part of its research into self-driving technology.
Consumer Reports officials believe this raises privacy concerns and also potentially undermines the safety benefits of driver monitoring, which is to use cameras and software to alert drivers when they’re not paying attention to the road.
“If Tesla has the ability to determine if the driver isn’t paying attention, it needs to warn the driver in the moment, like other automakers already do,” said Jake Fisher, senior director of Consumer Reports’ auto test center.
How is the footage used?
Tesla’s driver-facing camera located above the rearview mirror in Model 3 and Model Y, called a “cabin camera” is turned off by default.
If drivers enable the cabin camera, Tesla says it will capture and share a video clip of the moments before a crash or automatic emergency braking (AEB) activation to help the automaker “develop future safety features and software enhancements,” according to Tesla’s website.
For reference, other automakers also store footage of drivers and vehicle occupants in self-driving vehicle scenarios. However, they used closed-loop systems, which requires retrieval of the data after the fact. It also typically has some restrictions on how it’s handled, which mitigates privacy concerns.
“Any time video is being recorded, it can be accessed later,” said John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
“There may be legal protections around who can access it and how, but there’s always the possibility that insurance companies, police, regulators, and other parties in accidents will be able to obtain that data.”
China expresses privacy and security concerns
It’s not just Consumer Reports that is worried about Tesla tech being used to invade privacy.
“There’s a very strong incentive for us to be very confidential with any information,” Musk said in a recent public outing. “If Tesla used cars to spy in China or anywhere, we will get shut down.”
Despite that, according to multiple media reports, China, a nation not known for its concerns about citizen privacy, banned Tesla vehicles from driving into housing compounds for families of personnel working in sensitive industries and state agencies.
Reliance on cameras, despising lidar
Tesla has bet heavily on camera technology. In addition to its interior camera aimed at drivers, the company uses exterior vehicle camera tech in its AV programs. The cameras are supplemented by radar, but not lidar.
Most automakers developing autonomous vehicles use some form of lidar, which measures the distance of objects by shooting lasers at the item and detecting how much time they take to return. The idea is similar to radar. The technology is extremely accurate at detecting objects even up to millimeters.
Tesla CEO Musk has long been a critic of lidar. In April 2019, while speaking at a Tesla delivery center in Norway, he called it “a crutch,” denigrating the technology for its inability to actually identify what is in a vehicle’s immediate environment. It’s also significantly pricier than cameras and radar.