Consider the uproar last summer in England, when the government acknowledged it is considering plans to mandate electronic identification chips in every car. Roadside sensors would read the vehicles’ data, which could include basic information about cars and their owners-plus matters of interest to law enforcement, like unpaid fines and delinquent inspections.
“Watch out for spy in every car” warned a headline in the Times of London. The British Department for Transport declined interview requests. It had commissioned a report from the firm PA Consulting, whose Simon Smith said, “I’m not aware of any hard decisions that have been made about deployment.” His company’s report, which gave rise to the news coverage, was only a feasibility study, he said.
Smith’s comments, and a parallel Europe-wide study conducted by Ertico, a nonprofit transportation technology group, made it clear that many of the high-tech ideas would involve enhancements to the basic chip. Radio-frequency identification could allow car owners to be automatically billed for bridge tolls-or for speeding.
Smith called the plan for a national system, possibly in place by 2007, “technically feasible,” if the public accepts it.
There’s action and discussion on this side of the Atlantic as well. Police officials speak cautiously about technology and underscore their respect for privacy. This despite the obvious advantage that sophisticated tracking would give them in crimes such as last year’s Washington-area sniper murders.
Many Americans ordinarily concerned about privacy found themselves hoping technology would find the white van the police sought (which proved to be the wrong vehicle).
More recently, and in the same region, technology did come to the rescue after one crime. While driving in Montgomery County, Md., in July, Marna Plaia was thrown from her Mercedes Benz by a carjacker who drove off with her 3-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter strapped in their car seats.
Another motorist in a Mercedes came to her aid. Both cars had TeleAid, a service which, like General Motors’ OnStar, allows drivers to communicate via cellular telephone technology with operators who track their locations through global positioning systems (GPS). The TeleAid operator was able to listen to sounds in the car, confirming that the children were OK, and to relay the car’s location to the police, who caught the carjacker.
This same technology also allows operators to disable stolen cars-even while they’re in use, though most seem to wait until they’re turned off. Some services offer automatic collision notification, alerting authorities when air bags deploy. They will soon be able to dispatch information about crash severity and likely injuries. (One car executive said he’s heard of cases where police were dispatched to minor accidents only to find uninjured, but intoxicated, drivers who were not glad to see them.)
A few years ago, Progressive Insurance offered Texas drivers with GPS-equipped cars monthly rates that varied depending on where, when and how much they drove. Drivers saved money, the company reported, but it ended the practice because not enough cars have GPS.
Other technologies sound like science fiction. One in development involves cars communicating directly with other cars and the infrastructure. For example, when a car hits an ice patch, it will instantly beam the information to other cars and to electronic signs, which will post it.
A 1992 article by Las Vegas car designer and engineer Peter Bryant predicted a car’s internal diagnostics would soon be capable of informing a driver when his tires were badly worn. It could even be programmed to do something about it. Acting like the officious computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the car might warn the driver, reduce his speed to 15 miles per hour and, if he continued to drive, inform his insurance carrier and the motor vehicle department.
Does all this mean we’re on the verge of a government program like the one apparently contemplated in England?
The consensus is that we’re not.
Texas entrepreneur David Cook, the original founder of Blockbuster Video, is a pioneer in this field. He developed the first electronic toll, installed in Dallas in the late 1980s, and designed electronic tags that allow railroad cars to be tracked in the U.S. and France. Told of the putative English plan and 2007 target date, Cook just laughed.