At various points on the exterior, cameras are being used to make our cars smarter and safer. Interestingly, interiors haven't been given the same treatment, in spite of the potential benefits reading passenger body language could provide. Fraunhofer is developing a system to do just that, turning cameras to the inside to identify how many people are on board and what they're doing in an attempt to make cabins smarter.
On the surface, being constantly monitored by a camera in the cabin is an unnerving idea. But Fraunhofer argues cameras could be used to improve safety, by tailoring the way airbags fire to suit the driver's current seating position, for example. Such a system could also be used to identify when passengers are riding with their feet on the dashboard, a situation where an airbag could do more harm than than good.
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As well as the potential crash safety benefits, an in-cabin camera could be used to cut down on driver distractions. If the system detects a driver turning around to look at their kids, Fraunhofer says it could be programmed to display a video image of what's happening in the back seat instead, potentially minimizing time spent looking away from the road and instruments.
Looking further down the track, researchers believe the technology would be particularly useful for autonomous car cabins, which could offer expanded infotainment programs when passengers are relaxing in self-drive mode.
Of course all of this is potentially happening because, at the moment, the technology is still in the early stages of testing. According to the researchers, the system is able to detect and trace movement, but using that to work out what those movements mean is a much more complex puzzle. Also, identifying the multitude of objects that can find their way into a car poses a problem.
"One challenge is to reliably identify the objects people are using," says Dr. Michael Voit, Fraunhofer Institute of Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation. "If one considers that in principle, any object could find its way into the vehicle, we must somehow limit the number of detectable possibilities."
Fraunhofer researchers are working with other companies, including Volkswagen Group Research, Bosch and Visteon on the technology. Having refined the concept on its simulator, the team will integrate the system into a VW Multivan for further testing. From there, the results will be used to inform new vehicle interior concepts in the years to come.