Big Brother is driving with you

‘Big Brother’ app knows all, tells all on driver behavior

A smartphone ‘tattletale’ that will record driving transgressions spells good news for good motorists, according to its creator

Driving monitor app screenshot (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Driving monitor app screenshot (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Technology that keeps an eye on traffic, provides turn-by-turn directions, and keeps track of movements and footsteps for exercisers and runners has been repurposed – to report on how well drivers observe the rules of the road.

The app, created by Dr. Eli Rohn and six of his students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has the potential to be the ultimate “spy app” for police, insurance companies and others who believe that the best way to cut down on traffic fatalities is to force drivers to toe the line.

“That’s certainly one way to look at it,” said Rohn. “But I prefer to look at it in a more positive sense. Insurance companies already know who is at risk and who is a bad driver, but they don’t know who the good drivers are. Instead of just punishing the bad drivers with higher rates and restrictions, which they already do, they could use this technology to determine who the good drivers are, for a change, and reward them.”

The app, which is still under development (it should be ready for the market in the coming months, according to the team) uses a smartphone’s sensors to collect data in real time while an individual is driving and stores it in a cloud-based database. It uses the smartphone’s built-in tech – GPS chip, accelerometer, camera, motion detector, wifi, etc, to record everything that happens on a trip. If the driver goes over the speed limit, the app records that; if a driver swerves, stops short, or switches lanes too often, the app records that as well. All the information is uploaded to the cloud, where it is analyzed and personalized. Anyone who is authorized (including the driver) can get specifics on an entire trip or just the metrics that interest them.

The app even rates drivers, analyzing behavior over time to classify a driver’s driving style on a continuous scale, indicating if s/he is anxious, cautious, dangerously irresponsible, angry or hostile. The information – and its conclusions – can be stored in a database, or sent over to parents, as well as “authorities,” like police or insurance companies, who, in the case of the latter, can assign a driver to a higher-risk (and higher premium) pool, or, in the case of the former, yank their license altogether, as a precautionary measure.

To verify the app’s proof of concept and to assess the system’s accuracy, the team used the system in three different vehicles, with three different drivers. Test drives collected over 10,000 driver events in urban, rural and highway environments. The vehicles used were a sedan, a bus and a motorcycle. The data collection portion worked flawlessly, including periods where data communications was interrupted, as did the driver behavior and other components of the app’s analysis component.

Dr. Eli Rohn (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Eli Rohn (Photo credit: Courtesy)

With smartphones as sophisticated as they are, and apps like Google Maps and Waze already for years using a smartphone’s capabilities to the hilt, it was just a matter of time before someone developed the new and as yet unnamed BGU app. And even though “there is definitely plenty of opportunity for it to be abused, I prefer to think that it will be used as a carrot, not a stick.”

For example, said Rohn, “you could reward drivers who are already restricted with an easing of those restrictions for good road behavior.” That could apply, he said, to new drivers in jurisdictions (like in Israel) where they are required to have an adult accompanying them for their first six months or year on the road. “With a good report after three months, they could get an exemption for driving with an adult, or for being limited in the number of passengers they can drive with.”

Both those factors – getting parents out of the car and being able to take “the gang” wherever they want without fetters – are powerful motives to encourage good driving habits in young drivers, which they will hopefully take with them throughout the rest of their driving career. Until the BGU app was developed, said Rohn, there was no way to accurately track that good behavior. “Ditto for insurance companies, who could reward drivers who go out of their way to drive carefully, and not just punish bad drivers. We’ve done that for years, and traffic fatalities are still unacceptably high. We believe this app can help bring those numbers down.”

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