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Byton’s M-Byte electric vehicle at the 2019 CES in Las Vegas in January. The company is one among many in the industry working to keep track of the people behind the wheel.CreditCreditAlexandria Sage/Reuters
By John R. Quain, Contributor for the New York Times | March 28, 2019
The automobile, in American life, has long been a hallmark of freedom. A teenager’s first driver’s license offers freedom from Mom and Dad. A new car and the open road bring the freedom to chase the American dream. But as more technology creeps in to help drivers, so, too, will systems that eavesdrop on and monitor them, necessitated not by convenience but by new safety concerns.
Cameras that recognize facial expressions, sensors that detect heart rates and software that assesses a driver’s state of awareness may seem like superfluous flights of fancy, but they are increasingly viewed as part of an inevitable driving future.
At upstarts like the electric car company Byton and mainstream mainstays like Volvo, car designers are working on facial recognition, drowsy-driver alert systems and other features for keeping track of the people behind the wheel.
The most immediate impetus: concerns about the safe use of driver-assistance options like automatic lane-keeping that still require drivers to pay attention. And when truly autonomous vehicles finally arrive, the consensus among automakers and their suppliers is that new ways will be needed to check on drivers and passengers to make sure they are safe inside.
“It’s really taken off from no monitoring to tactile monitoring to taking a look at your eyes,” said Grant Courville, a vice president at BlackBerry QNX, which creates in-dash software systems. “I definitely see more of that coming as you get to Level 3 cars,” he added, referring to vehicles that can perform some self-driving functions in limited situations.
With its 2018 Cadillac CT6, for example, General Motors introduced an infrared camera that looks up from the steering column at drivers.
The feature is part of the car’s Super Cruise system, the first hands-free driving tool to operate on select United States highways. The camera tracks a driver’s head position and eye movements to ensure that the person is attentive and able to retake control of the car when needed.
Similar concerns about BMW’s semi-autonomous systems prompted the German carmaker to add a driver monitoring camera in its 2019 X5 sport utility vehicle. The video camera is mounted in the instrument cluster as part of BMW’s Extended Traffic Jam Assistant system, part of a $1,700 package, that allows the car to go autonomous — with driver monitoring — in stop-and-go traffic under 37 miles per hour.
“It looks at the head pose and the eyes of the driver,” said Dirk Wisselmann of BMW’s automated driving program. “We have to, because by doing so it empowers us to add more functionality.”
Automakers understand that tracking technology raises privacy issues, so BMW does not record or store the driver monitoring information, Mr. Wisselmann said.
Perhaps still smarting from lessons learned in the past, G.M. also does not record what transpires inside the car’s cabin, the company said. In 2011, G.M. tried to change the user agreement in its OnStar service to allow it to share driver information with third-party companies. The backlash from owners was so swift and severe that the Supreme Court cited the episode as proof that people had an expectation of privacy in their cars.
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G.M. later introduced the first built-in video cameras and microphones meant to record the drive in 2014 Chevrolet Corvettes. A valet mode (“Think of it as a baby monitor for your car,” an official said in a Chevrolet news release at the time) that surreptitiously recorded Ferris Bueller-like joy rides made the company so nervous that it sent letters to owners warning about possible legal issues and asking them to refrain from using the setting.
Now that driver-assistance programs that can steer a vehicle down the highway are becoming more widespread, automakers fear that without such monitoring efforts, some drivers will abuse or misuse the semi-autonomous systems.
There are multiple cases of Tesla owners circumventing the requirement that drivers keep their hands on the wheel when the car’s lane-keeping Autopilot feature is engaged. The consequences have sometimes been fatal.
“But it’s not just about distraction management,” said Jada Smith, a vice president in the advanced engineering department at the auto supplier Aptiv. During an autonomous driving demonstration, she pointed out that such driver monitoring systems can assess a driver’s cognitive load levels — how many tasks the person is trying to juggle — and then adjust other car functions.
“If the driver is not fully aware,” Ms. Smith said, “we might brake faster.” Other ideas include putting radar inside the car for interior sensing like detecting that a child has been left behind. (Every nine days a child left in a car dies from vehicular heatstroke in the United States, according to KidsAndCars.org, an advocacy group.)
It was infants’ being left in cars that first prompted Guardian Optical Technologies, based in Tel Aviv, to develop in-cabin monitoring technology, said Tal Recanati, the company’s chief business officer. The company has now expanded its 3-D vision and “micro vibration” sensing system to recognize faces, check seatbelt use, even adjust elements like airbag deployment velocity based on a passenger’s approximate weight. Eventually Guardian’s technology could be able to judge the emotional state of people in the car.
Affectiva, a Boston company developing technology for measuring emotions, has been conducting such research for several years to assess driver behavior. On a closed test track peppered with distractions — people dressed as construction workers, a security vehicle with flashing lights, pedestrians, fake storefronts — Affectiva demonstrated how the company’s program works in tandem with a “collaborative driving” system made by the Swedish auto supplier Veoneer. Veoneer’s technology can control steering and braking on its own, with the occasional intervention of a human driver.
Affectiva collected a variety of driver information during the test, measuring elements like the amount of grip on the wheel, throttle action, vehicle speed and the driver’s eyes, facial and head movements. It then compared that information with what was happening around the car to determine how much trust the driver had in the semi-autonomous system and the perceived level of cognitive load.
“We want them to trust the car — but not too much,” said Ola Bostrom, a vice president of research at Veoneer. “The driver still has to be engaged” in order to take over the controls when a car encounters a situation it can’t handle.
To deliver other advanced services, like augmented reality information about nearby businesses and locations, it will also be necessary to monitor what drivers are paying attention to, said Andrew Poliak, a vice president at Panasonic Automotive Systems. And companies as diverse as Mercedes-Benz and the voice-recognition company Nuance want to add Alexa-like services, meaning that your sedan or S.U.V. may always be listening.
“So these systems are going to become standard in all cars,” said Nakul Duggal, who leads the automotive products group at Qualcomm.
Will privacy concerns then recede in the rearview mirror of advancing technologies?
When fully autonomous vehicles begin circulating on public roads, designers note, they will have to be able to detect when people enter or exit a vehicle, who the person is, whether they have left anything behind in the car, and especially if a person has become disabled (because of intoxication or a medical emergency). And that information will inevitably be shared online, although there may be ways that some people can still preserve their sense of independence in the car.
“In the future, it may be different for people who own their own cars, where there’s more privacy,” said Mr. Wisselmann at BMW, “and for people who use robo taxis, where there will be less.”
Futurists and tech companies often use the idea of freedom to promote products, but as technology gets ever more complicated and spreads into every facet of life, it provides authorities with ever more tools and opportunities to observe the populace and potentially infringe on those freedoms.
Law enforcement agencies, in particular, are rapidly incorporating cutting-edge tech into their workflow, and while some of these gadgets may make it easier to catch criminals, they’re also raising concerns about the erosion of privacy and the seeming ubiquity of surveillance.
Perhaps nowhere is the dichotomy between security and intrusiveness more apparent than in facial-recognition software. Software is becoming frighteningly good at telling one face from another, and while that means you can unlock the latest iPhone simply by looking into the camera, it also means authorities can scan entire crowds, picking out individuals of interest. This isn’t merely the stuff of sci-fi nightmares, either; the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon has already used Amazon’s facial-recognition software, trimming the time needed to identify suspects to mere seconds and apprehending its first suspect within a week by using the new system, according to Amazon.
That might make catching criminals easier — in theory, anyway — but it’s raising concerns among skeptics and civil liberties watchdogs like the American Civil Liberties Union. Whether through closed-circuit television arrays (like those used in London) or through drones flying overhead, law enforcement agencies could keep an eye on anyone they want to, tracking the movements of private citizens wherever they may go.
Smartphones are another area in which police are looking to gather information about suspects. In Carpenter v. United States, the Supreme Court examined a case in which police used location information from a suspect’s cell phone records to present a detailed account of the suspect’s movements over a period of time. The court ultimately ruled that police need a warrant to obtain cell phone location records, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing: “Given the unique nature of cell phone location records, the fact that the information is held by a third party does not by itself overcome the user’s claim to Fourth Amendment protection. Whether the government employs its own surveillance technology … or leverages the technology of a wireless carrier, we hold that an individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his physical movements as captured through CSLI.”
However, police are also using tech in ways that can promote more accountability and safety in law enforcement. For example, some departments are using virtual reality to train officers in handling tense situations. Many police departments in the U.S., in response to high-profile accusations of police brutality and unjustified shootings, are experimenting with body cameras, including those that turn on automatically when an officer draws their weapon, or even cameras that are always on. Debates about how society should weigh security versus privacy are unlikely to slow down, and neither is law enforcement’s pursuit of more advanced technology.
Wi-Fi is about to get faster. That’s great news: faster internet is constantly in demand, especially as we consume more bandwidth-demanding apps, games, and videos with our laptops and phones.
But the next generation of Wi-Fi, known as Wi-Fi 6, isn’t just a simple speed boost. Its impact will be more nuanced, and we’re likely to see its benefits more and more over time.
This is less of a one-time speed increase and more of a future-facing upgrade designed to make sure our speeds don’t grind to a halt a few years down the road.
Wi-Fi 6 is just starting to arrive this year, and there’s a good chance it’ll be inside your next phone or laptop. Here’s what you should expect once it arrives.
What is Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of Wi-Fi. It’ll still do the same basic thing — connect you to the internet — just with a bunch of additional technologies to make that happen more efficiently, speeding up connections in the process.
How fast is it?
The short but incomplete answer: 9.6 Gbps. That’s up from 3.5 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5.
The real answer: both of those speeds are theoretical maximums that you’re unlikely to ever reach in real-world Wi-Fi use. And even if you could reach those speeds, it’s not clear that you’d need them. The typical download speed in the US is just 72 Mbps, or less than 1 percent of the theoretical maximum speed.
But the fact that Wi-Fi 6 has a much higher theoretical speed limit than its predecessor is still important. That 9.6 Gbps doesn’t have to go to a single computer. It can be split up across a whole network of devices. That means more potential speed for each device.
Wi-Fi 6 isn’t about top speeds
Instead of boosting the speed for individual devices, Wi-Fi 6 is all about improving the network when a bunch of devices are connected.
Those added devices take a toll on your network. Your router can only communicate with so many devices at once, so the more gadgets demanding Wi-Fi, the more the network overall is going to slow down.
Wi-Fi 6 introduces some new technologies to help mitigate the issues that come with putting dozens of Wi-Fi devices on a single network. It lets routers communicate with more devices at once, lets routers send data to multiple devices in the same broadcast, and lets Wi-Fi devices schedule check-ins with the router. Together, those features should keep connections strong even as more and more devices start demanding data.
Until recently, Wi-Fi generations were referred to by an arcane naming scheme that required you to understand whether 802.11n was faster than 802.11ac, and whether 802.11ac was faster than 802.11af, and whether any of those names were just made up nonsense. (Answer: sort of.)
You probably won’t hear the Wi-Fi 5 name used very much since it’s been around for five years and just got that name in October 2018. For Wi-Fi 6, you might see the 802.11ax name here and there, but companies largely seem to be on board with using the simplified naming scheme.
At first, Wi-Fi 6 connections aren’t likely to be substantially faster. A single Wi-Fi 6 laptop connected to a Wi-Fi 6 router may only be slightly faster than a single Wi-Fi 5 laptop connected to a Wi-Fi 5 router.
The story starts to change as more and more devices get added onto your network. Where current routers might start to get overwhelmed by requests from a multitude of devices, Wi-Fi 6 routers are designed to more effectively keep all those devices up to date with the data they need.
Each of those devices’ speeds won’t necessarily be faster than what they can reach today on a high-quality network, but they’re more likely to maintain those top speeds even in busier environments. You can imagine this being useful in a home where one person is streaming Netflix, another is playing a game, someone else is video chatting, and a whole bunch of smart gadgets — a door lock, temperature sensors, light switches, and so on — are all checking in at once.
The top speeds of those devices won’t necessarily be boosted, but the speeds you see in typical, daily use likely will get an upgrade.
Exactly how fast that upgrade is, though, will depend on how many devices are on your network and just how demanding those devices are.
How do I get Wi-Fi 6?
You’ll need to buy new devices.
Wi-Fi generations rely on new hardware, not just software updates, so you’ll need to buy new phones, laptops, and so on to get the new version of Wi-Fi.
To be clear: this is not something you’ll want to run out to the store and buy a new laptop just to get. It’s not that game-changing of an update for any one device.
Instead, new devices will start coming with Wi-Fi 6 by default. As you replace your phone, laptop, and game consoles over the next five years, you’ll bring home new ones that include the latest version of Wi-Fi.
There is one thing you will have to make a point of going out and buying, though: a new router. If your router doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6, you won’t see any benefits, no matter how many Wi-Fi 6 devices you bring home. (You could actually see a benefit, though, connecting Wi-Fi 5 gadgets to a Wi-Fi 6 router, because the router may be capable of communicating with more devices at once.)
Again, this isn’t something worth rushing out and buying. But if your home is packed with Wi-Fi-connected smart devices, and things start to get sluggish in a couple years, a Wi-Fi 6 router may be able to meaningfully help.
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What makes Wi-Fi 6 faster?
There are two key technologies speeding up Wi-Fi 6 connections: MU-MIMO and OFDMA.
MU-MIMO, which stands for “multi-user, multiple input, multiple output,” is already in use in modern routers and devices, but Wi-Fi 6 upgrades it.
The technology allows a router to communicate with multiple devices at the same time, rather than broadcasting to one device, and then the next, and the next. Right now, MU-MIMO allows routers to communicate with four devices at a time. Wi-Fi 6 will allow devices to communicate with up to eight.
You can think of adding MU-MIMO connections like adding delivery trucks to a fleet, says Kevin Robinson, marketing leader for the Wi-Fi Alliance, an internationally backed tech-industry group that oversees the implementation of Wi-Fi. “You can send each of those trucks in different directions to different customers,” Robinson says. “Before, you had four trucks to fill with goods and send to four customers. With Wi-Fi 6, you now have eight trucks.”
The other new technology, OFDMA, which stands for “orthogonal frequency division multiple access,” allows one transmission to deliver data to multiple devices at once.
Extending the truck metaphor, Robinson says that OFDMA essentially allows one truck to carry goods to be delivered to multiple locations. “With OFDMA, the network can look at a truck, see ‘I’m only allocating 75 percent of that truck and this other customer is kind of on the way,’” and then fill up that remaining space with a delivery for the second customer, he says.
In practice, this is all used to get more out of every transmission that carries a Wi-Fi signal from a router to your device.
Wi-Fi 6 can also improve battery life
Another new technology in Wi-Fi 6 allows devices to plan out communications with a router, reducing the amount of time they need to keep their antennas powered on to transmit and search for signals. That means less drain on batteries and improved battery life in turn.
This is all possible because of a feature called Target Wake Time, which lets routers schedule check-in times with devices.
It isn’t going to be helpful across the board, though. Your laptop needs constant internet access, so it’s unlikely to make heavy use of this feature (except, perhaps, when it moves into a sleep state).
Instead, this feature is meant more for smaller, already low-power Wi-Fi devices that just need to update their status every now and then. (Think small sensors placed around a home to monitor things like leaks or smart home devices that sit unused most of the day.)
Wi-Fi 6 also means better security
Last year, Wi-Fi started getting its biggest security update in a decade, with a new security protocol called WPA3. WPA3 makes it harder for hackers to crack passwords by constantly guessing them, and it makes some data less useful even if hackers manage to obtain it.
Current devices and routers can support WPA3, but it’s optional. For a Wi-Fi 6 device to receive certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance, WPA3 is required, so most Wi-Fi 6 devices are likely to include the stronger security once the certification program launches.
Wi-Fi 6 will start arriving on high-end phones this year, though. Qualcomm’s latest flagship processor, the Snapdragon 855, includes support for Wi-Fi 6, and it’s destined for the next wave of top-of-the-line phones. The Snapdragon 855’s inclusion doesn’t guarantee that a phone will have Wi-Fi 6, but it’s a good sign: Samsung’s Galaxy S10 is one of the first phones with the new processor, and it supports the newest generation of Wi-Fi.
The inclusion of Wi-Fi 6 is likely to become even more common next year. The Wi-Fi Alliance will launch its Wi-Fi 6 certification program this fall, which guarantees compatibility across Wi-Fi devices. Devices don’t need to pass that certification, but its launch will signify that the industry is ready for Wi-Fi 6’s arrival.
Correction February 22nd, 2:10PM ET: WPA3 security is a requirement for Wi-Fi 6 certification, but it may not be included in uncertified devices.