Hop into the redesigned 2019 Subaru Forester and the car could greet you by name while it adjusts the seat and mirrors to your preference. If you want, the Forester’s system can also do that for your spouse, mother-in-law and two teen drivers. That’s thanks to new facial-recognition software that recognizes up to five different drivers — far more than the two or three in a typical driver’s-seat memory system.
Related: 2019 Subaru Forester Video Review
The system, called DriverFocus, embeds a driver-facing camera in a secondary display above the multimedia system. It looks for signs of drowsiness and driver distraction, with the memory settings to boot. Amid major privacy concerns from social media giants like Facebook, Subaru claims the camera doesn’t record anything. But another camera system in your Forester — and many other Subaru models — does.
Dominick Infante, the automaker’s head of communications, told us this month at an event for the Midwest Automotive Media Association in suburban Chicago that DriverFocus is “an infrared system — it’s not videotaping you.” But Subaru’s EyeSight system, standard in the new Forester and several other models, does record footage. And authorities could gain access to that footage even if you didn’t want them to.
Recording in Progress
EyeSight, now available on every Subaru but the BRZ, positions two forward-facing cameras above the center rear view mirror. The vehicle’s cameras monitor road markings and other objects to help facilitate adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure steering assist and more. EyeSight’s cameras also record footage on a 22-second loop — a longstanding practice of the system, Infante said. Owners can request from Subaru to see the last 22 seconds of footage, but a court can also order access.
“You can’t [see it] unless you specifically request to see it or there’s a lawsuit,” Infante explained, adding later that “you have to give written permission or you have to be subpoenaed.”
It’s unclear what stops the vehicle’s cameras from actively recording: turning the car off, an airbag deployment or otherwise. Asked if there’s a way to manually store a clip for viewing later — if you’re in a fender bender you think is someone else’s fault, for example — Infante didn’t immediately say.
Subaru isn’t alone in this. Recording and transmitting footage from a driving car is common practice, according to Colin Bird-Martinez, a senior analyst at IHS Markit. Forward-facing vehicle cameras store plenty of information, in some cases for third-party data providers.
As Subaru’s example demonstrates, such data can end up in the hands of authorities. That’s similar to the situation with event data recorders — commonly called “black boxes” — in most cars today, which can measure everything from acceleration to seat belt usage. The National Conference of State Legislators notes that 17 states have enacted privacy protections around so-called event data recorders, or EDRs. Yet nearly all of them provide exceptions for court orders.
Seen, But Not Stored
What isn’t recorded can’t be distributed, of course, and that’s where driver-facing cameras like the Forester’s come into play. Such cameras are proliferating as ways to intuit driver distraction or driving fatigue, but Bird-Martinez says the driver-facing vehicle camera systems he’s seen, like the one in Subaru’s Forester, process images in real time without storing any video.
“As far as I’m aware, they don’t store,” Bird-Martinez said. “It’s an algorithm that runs fully in the video, so it doesn’t have to store video. … It’s just done in real time. There could be some sort of limited buffer, but it probably is erased immediately when you’re done.”
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