LAS VEGAS • As vehicles get smarter, your car will be keeping eyes on you.
This week at CES, the international consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, a host of start-up companies demonstrated how the sensor technology that watches and analyses drivers, passengers and objects in cars will mean enhanced safety in the short term and revenue opportunities in the future.
Whether by generating alerts about drowsiness, unfastened seat belts or wallets left in the back seat, the technology aims not only to curb distracted driving and other undesirable behaviour, but also eventually help carmakers and ride-hailing companies make money from data generated inside the vehicle.
In-car sensor technology is deemed critical to the full deployment of self-driving cars, which analysts say is still likely years away in the United States.
The more sophisticated in-car monitoring also could respond to concerns that technology that automates some driving tasks could lead motorists to stop paying attention and not be ready to retake control should the situation demand it.
When self-driving cars gain broad acceptance, the monitoring cameras and artificial-intelligence software behind them will likely be used to help create a more customised ride for the passengers.
Interior-facing cameras in the car are still a novelty, currently found only in last year's Cadillac CT6.
Audi and Tesla have developed systems, but they are not currently activated. Mazda, Subaru and electric vehicle start-up Byton are introducing cars this year whose cameras measure driver inattention.
Companies such as Israel's Guardian Optical Technologies and eyeSight Technologies, Silicon Valley's Eyeris Technologies, Sweden's Smart Eye, Australia's Seeing Machines and Vayyar Imaging, another Israeli company using radar instead of vision, are crowding the space.
It is not yet clear how consumers will react to the potentially disconcerting idea of being watched - then warned - in a vehicle, especially as cars become living rooms with the advent of self-driving.
"There's no doubt this is a hot area," said Mr Modar Alaoui, founder of Eyeris. But he believes that once carmakers see the benefits of a camera tracking the driver, they will opt for more.
Regulators like the technology at its most basic. Eye-tracking can determine if a driver is not paying attention or, worse, is asleep. That will become essential as cars become more autonomous, for "Level 3" autonomy where the car handles most driving, but returns control to the driver in trickier situations.
European car safety rating programme Euro New Car Assessment Programme has proposed that cars with driver monitoring for 2020 should earn higher ratings.
In the wake of a 2016 fatal Tesla crash, the US National Transportation Safety Board recommended carmakers develop means to better track driver engagement.
But carmakers are more excited by the revenue possibilities when the data creates a more customised experience for riders, generating higher premiums and tie-ins with third parties, such as retailers.
"The reason (the camera) is going to sweep across the cabin is not because of distraction, but because of all the side benefits," said Mr Mike Ramsey, Gartner's automotive research director. "Companies that are trying to monetise data from the connected car are investigating ways to use eye-tracking technology."
Carmakers could gather and sell the data. A billboard advertiser might be eager to know how many commuters look at his sign.
Tracking the gaze of a passenger towards a store or restaurant could result in a discount offered to him.
Companies say carmakers will decide how the data is used, but consumers will be able to opt out.
Some still see interior cameras as a bad idea, however. Cars are still considered private zones, said Vayyar co-founder Raviv Melamed. "They think they're in their own living room, they behave like they're not outside. It's obvious no one wants a camera," he added.
But the brakes towards having one have been released.