The most nerve-wracking part of taking the road test for your driver’s licence isn’t remembering to check your blind spots; it’s the instructor in the passenger seat silently judging you the entire time. Such tests will soon be less stressful in India where Microsoft Research has developed an app that can administer a driving test by monitoring the driver’s performance with a smartphone.
The HAMS project (short for “Harnessing AutoMobiles for Safety”) uses a smartphone mounted to the windshield of a vehicle that’s positioned so that its front-facing camera can see and monitor the driver, while its rear-facing camera can monitor the road ahead, as well as other vehicles and traffic. The HAMS app also takes advantage of the myriad of sensors included in even the cheapest smartphones available today, including the accelerometer which can keep tabs on how nuanced a driver is with the gas and brake pedals, as well as GPS to monitor the vehicle’s speed throughout a test.
In its current form, the HAMS app is able to evaluate a driver’s performance (how safely they operate a vehicle, whether or not they’re adequately checking mirrors and blind spots) with the help of simple tracking markers set up around a closed testing course. The markers are recognised by the smartphone’s camera and can be used to accurately gauge the location of the vehicle, and how close it comes to obstacles the driver should be avoiding.
Closed courses aren’t always an option, however, so the Microsoft Research developers are working to overcome challenges of using the HAMS app in more complex driving conditions. In Australia, road tests mostly take place in real-world conditions and drivers need to bring their own vehicles so the app will not only have to take into account the countless additional variables of busy streets and roads that vary in size but also cars and trucks of different shapes and sizes which could alter the smartphone cameras’ vantage points.
There are certainly advantages to offloading the responsibilities of testing drivers to an automated system like a smartphone app: it will never come to work moody, it will treat every driver fairly without bias, it can’t be bribed, and it allows tests to be performed almost anywhere, even places where certified driving instructors aren’t readily available. But at the same time, it’s yet another job being lost to automation, and it’s important to remember that the testers aren’t only evaluating a driver’s technical abilities. If you spend the entirety of your driving test road-raging at everyone else on the road, there’s little chance you’re going to be handed a licence that gives you free rein on the roads afterward.
Of course, the need for an app like this could be completely moot in a decade anyways when autonomous vehicles become more commonplace. The best way to keep our roads safe is to take humans out of the driving equation completely.