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Tech that nags drivers: It's about safety (and GDP)

In an interview with CNET, Seeing Machines CEO Ken Kroeger says data collected by his company's eye- and head-tracking tech, which is reportedly being put in GM cars, is only for the driver (currently).

Ken Kroeger, CEO of Seeing Machines, insists that his company's tracking technology will only save lives, not snoop unnecessarily. ProactiveInvestors Stocktube/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I am torn.

On the one hand, I don't take to being ordered around too kindly. On the other, when I watch (and listen to) actress Scarlett Johansson in "Her," I'm enchanted by the idea of software that actually cares about me.

So, when I heard that General Motors is reportedly inserting technology that tracks your head and eye movements into its cars -- in order to warn you when you're misbehaving behind the wheel -- my instincts expressed schizophrenic tendencies.

The insertion of such nagging software in GM cars is rumored to happen as early as 2016. So I thought I'd talk with Ken Kroeger, CEO of Seeing Machines, the company that created the software, to nag him a little.

Seeing Machines, an Australian vehicle safety tech company, has partnered with Japanese safety company Takata in order to ensure what Seeing Machines describes as "total safety on the roads." It says the deal will Takata will "deliver the first ever mass-manufactured implementation of a driver-monitoring system that will warn drivers of lapses in attention, reducing the risk of potentially fatal accidents."

Its technology entails following drivers' eye and head movements and alerting them when it feels something is amiss.

I wondered whether the information collected by the technology could be passed on to, for example, your insurance company, which would be quite (financially) interested in how you really drive.

It could, said Kroeger, but it won't be. He told me: "The system is not a closed circuit TV. The images captured by the camera are processed by the computer and used by the computer to determine how attentive the driver is and what or where they are looking. Images are not stored or transmitted. The solution does not have memory for data or transmission capability."

Yes, it really is there just to help you.

The situation is different, though, for those who drive commercial vehicles. There, the employer pays for the tech and the employer wants to know what the driver is up to. The Seeing Machines technology can be modified, you see, to send the data onward and skyward.

Kroeger told me: "We currently have a program in South Africa where an insurance underwriter provides our aftermarket product to their commercial customers, at no cost, in the hope that it reduces claim payouts. The insurance underwriter has access to reports on fatigue and distraction events and uses these to help their customer work with their commercial drivers to change dangerous driving behavior. As a road user, I think that most of us see benefits in this."

The benefits are certainly evident. So are the qualms.

In the South African example, the drivers were first provided with a DVR device that recorded events. This, however, didn't change driver behavior -- or, quite naturally, the amount of money the insurance company had to pay out.

Given that some of Seeing Machines' commercial customers have drivers who are transporting dangerous materials, the owners believe it's important to find any means to increase safety.

There are three stages of alarm with the technology.

Kroeger explained: "When an in-cab alarm sounds, the driver is contacted immediately to ensure that they are OK and able to continue driving. In most cases this is the policy for the first alarm during a shift while the second alarm results in the driver being forced to stop and rest and the third having a alternate driver transported to the vehicle to relieve the fatigued operator."

Kroeger is so confident in his technology, because he believes that it alters human behavior in what sounds like an almost Pavlovian-pooch way. He said: "Our technology eradicates driver distraction very quickly. The human brain learns that the warning chime sounds if they take their eyes of the road for more than the configured time (this depends on the speed that the vehicle operates i.e. 3 seconds in a slow moving mining truck vs. 1.5 seconds in a highway going truck) and learns to bring their eyes back to the road continuously in order to avoid the chime."

I remember when I moved to Singapore. Taxi drivers all had a bell installed. It rang incessantly when they broke the speed limit. Many let the bell ring and drove like lunatics.

Still, Kroeger said he's only ever seen two commercial drivers being fired, after the technology revealed their unsuitability for the task.

He does, though, admit to one failure.

He said: "In this case, the technology was installed and left to the customer to manage the introduction and change management that we normally provide. The employees were not made aware of the technology's intended purpose, how the technology worked, what the policy around alerts would be and what services would be offered, if any, to the drivers if they had fatigue related issues."

Seeing Machines can't itself officially confirm the GM deal nor the launch timeline of 2016. A GM spokeswoman told me: "It is against our company policy to discuss potential future technologies."

Last week, however, GM CEO Mary Barra announced that her company's cars will be offering distraction-monitoring capabilities. Oddly enough, the timeline she gave was two years.

GM, which has attracted enormous negative publicity for its safety lapses that cost lives, is perhaps trying to get ahead in this field. However, a Seeing Machines spokesman told me: "Takata and Seeing Machines will jointly market its driver monitoring technology to all OEMs."

Drivers will inevitable wonder, in these days of porous clouds and lax security, whether their driving habits will, somehow, be transmitted to insurance companies and even the authorities.

Currently, there's a sense that the authorities are sniffing into everything, so why not this? But the digital future seems to roll on down the highway regardless.

I asked Kroeger whether he sees the advent of self-driving cars as an ultimate benefit for humanity, rather than just another way in which Google can track our movements, so it can make more money.

Kroeger's answer: "I don't see myself as a safety or automotive expert. From what our customers are telling us, driver inattention and driver error are the cause of almost all road accidents. Road accidents consume an unnecessary percentage of global GDP."

Ah, so it is about money, then.