“Teen Driver” Technology: A Parent’s Personal Private Eye

By: Bridget Clerkin May 6, 2016
The Chevy Malibu Teen Driver Mode offers parents a way to always be in the car.
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Parents of teenagers may not yet have eyes in the back of their heads, like they’ve long promised, but a new technological boost has gotten them one step closer to having a broader view of what their children are up to, even when the kids leave the house.

So-called “Teen Driver” technology has been fitted into the 2016 model of the Chevrolet Malibu, allowing the car to track a driver’s max speed, distance traveled, and use of additional systems such as stability control and anti-lock brakes, among other features.

The auto manufacturer says the idea is a response to the startling statistics on teens and driving—namely that, per miles traveled, the fatal crash rate for drivers age 16 through 19 is nearly 3 times higher than those 20 years old and up, according to numbers compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Distracted driving—undoubtedly one of the biggest, if not the number one cause of those crashes—is also sharply on the rise, especially among teenagers. And the Centers for Disease Control recently reported that vehicle collisions are now the leading cause of death for teens in the United States.

What Chevrolet has developed won’t directly put a stop to any bad driving behavior (the program’s focus is on tracking, rather than interrupting, action), but it will give parents a much better idea of how their teen is operating the car—and the opportunity to teach them safer alternatives.

A New Type of Report Card

The debut program—an industry first—is part of a built-in system that monitors and records virtually all aspects of a typical drive. It allows parents to view the number of safety alarms triggered during a trip, such as forward collision alerts or lane departure warnings. It also ticks off any times when standard safety features are activated.

But there are some more proactive aspects to the program, as well, to include allowing parents to set a maximum radio volume and prohibiting the stereo from starting all together until everyone in the car is safely buckled up. A maximum speed selection is also possible, and while the car won’t prevent drivers from surpassing that limit, it will make a record of each time they do so, and it will also sound an alarm for the driver, letting the teens know they’re going too fast.

Radio-related rules could prove especially helpful for curbing accident numbers, as several studies have shown that too much attention to the dial—or the songs coming through the speakers—are sure paths to distraction. A 2014 study conducted by AAA, for example, showed that singing or moving to music was responsible for 8% of crashes involving teenage drivers.

All told, the statistics gathered by the vehicle, which are displayed in the car’s onboard screen, result in a new-age version of the report card, summarizing how safely a teen-piloted ride went.

The “Key” to Good Driving?

Proponents of the program argue that it’s much more reliable than other technologies proposed to monitor vehicle activity, since the Teen Driver program is built into the car itself, installed at the factory, and activated by professionals.

Unlike other apps, which can be turned on and off, or separate tracking devices, which could be removed, the Teen Driver technology is controlled by a special key fob. Once activated by parents—through the use of a 4-digit PIN code the parent chooses—it will automatically track any treks made while the key fob is in the car.

But some worry that despite the program’s best efforts, teenagers will do what they’ve always done—look for ways to work around their parents’ rules.

The fob, for example, could be switched out with the one from their parents’ key chains, or a teen could attempt to crack the 4-digit code that dictates the program. (Entering the PIN is how parents gain access to the trip information. It also allows them to clear the statistics in order to track a new trip afresh—a feature that likely won’t be missed by some teenagers.)

Still, Chevrolet has said the program is intended more as a teaching tool than an instrument to shape or shift behavior. And even if teens lie about how the stats on the screen came about, it will become much harder for them to hide any incidents, accidents, or even near-misses.

Looking Forward

The Teen Driver technology is currently only an optional feature on most Malibu models, although it does come standard on the 2016 Premier trim. Still, it’s expected to become standard on all Malibu models in one model year, according to Chevrolet.

It’s the type of hi-tech embrace that’s becoming a trend all across the automotive industry – especially when it comes to programs that are intended to curb distracted driving.

Any number of new platforms attempting to catch our driving routines up to our technological capabilities are being introduced by car makers and independent software companies alike. Their goal: to create a more connected world and a more connected road, giving our cars, trucks, and buses the chance to “communicate” with each other and create a digital safety net for their passengers.

Coupled with a program like Chevrolet’s, which specializes on the driving habits of teenagers— arguably the most at-risk motorists on the road—we could be looking at close to an accident-free future.

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