Many of the cars on sale today carry as many cameras as a cluster of paparazzi, pointing five or more lenses at lane lines and blind spots to assist drivers.
Even inexpensive cars such as the Nissan Versa Note are becoming shutterbugs. For less than $20,000, the hatchback can be bought with an "Around View" parking aid that patches several camera views into a simulated bird's-eye image.
The next step, experts say, could be cameras that observe the driver instead of the road. Automakers and suppliers are exploring using cameras to fight distracted driving and to unlock smartphone-style features for car owners.
It could be a windfall for suppliers such as Aisin Seiki Co., Continental AG and Delphi Automotive, all of which have demonstrated "driver monitoring" systems that use cameras to detect whether a driver is paying attention.
And in June, Ford Motor Co. and Intel Corp. revealed Project Mobii, for Mobile Interior Imaging, which takes the experiment a step further.
The companies' researchers used facial-recognition software to personalize the settings in a car and prevent theft. They set up a system that lets a driver remotely peer into a car from a smartphone, to check whether he or she left a missing item inside.
It is "purely research at this point," said Paul Mascarenas, Ford's chief technical officer, in the announcement of the project.
But, Jeff Greenberg, a senior technical leader in Ford's r&d division, said in an interview that it has the potential to "completely change the relationship between a person and a family and their car."
Watching the driver
ABI Research of London is projecting rapid growth in driver-monitoring systems such as those offered by Aisin, Continental and Delphi. It expects more than 60 million vehicles to ship worldwide with some sort of system in 2020, up from about 2.5 million in 2013. (That includes systems that rely on the movement of the steering wheel and outward-facing cameras.)
One early adopter is Toyota Motor Corp., which first equipped cars with eye monitor technology in 2008 and now offers its "alert monitor" in the Lexus LS, GS, and GX models, the company said.
But inward-facing cameras have other uses. In the long run, if autonomous driving becomes a reality, even video conferencing could be viable.
"When you think about cameras, there's almost no limit to the number and type of use cases you could think of," said Dominique Bonte, an ABI vice president. "Cameras are going to be in cars -- there's no doubt about it."
Victor Canseco, managing director of global sales at Delphi, said the supplier's anti-distraction system can synthesize data from a handful of sources -- including cameras inside and outside the car -- to decide how much the driver can handle.
The human mind can manage only so much of a workload, Canseco said. The workload is increased by heavy traffic, bad weather or having more passengers in the car. By plugging all of those data points into a formula, Delphi thinks it can gauge a driver's capabilities and lock out some of the most mentally taxing features.
"If you're driving by yourself on a straight road then, yeah, sure -- you can do all this stuff," Canseco said. "Should you be in the middle of a snowstorm with semis all around you going 85 or 90 mph, then we can take away some of the functions from the driver so you can be safe."
The company expects the first model using its system to go on sale around 2016.
• Monitor the driver to prevent distraction and dozing off
• Recognize faces as an anti-theft feature
• Unlock distracting tasks for the passenger, but not the driver
• Let an owner peer into the car remotely to search for a lost item
• Enable video conferencing if cars become autonomous
Locking out features has been unpopular with some car owners, though. One common gripe comes when automakers lock the navigation system when the car is in motion -- even if it's the passenger trying to push the buttons.
Ford's Greenberg said driver-facing cameras can solve that problem, too. The system that Ford and Intel concocted can detect whether the driver or passenger is reaching for the screen.
But drivers may not necessarily embrace having a camera watching them at all times. Companies know that drivers may feel as if they're being watched by Big Brother, particularly given the recent revelations about government spying on phone calls.
There are more practical problems, Greenberg said. Making facial recognition work in all of the lighting environments inside a car is a big challenge.
Automakers also must worry about privacy. If the car snaps a picture of the driver, who is allowed to see it?
"In a lot of ways, the engineering issues that are associated with this are easier than the issues with data and customer relationships," Greenberg said. "It's possible to violate a social compact if you don't do this well."