Ed Wallace

Witness for the Prosecution: Your Car

By Ed Wallace


The day is coming quickly when nothing you do in your vehicle will remain a secret anymore. In fact, some years ago in this column, we discussed how the Brits wanted to force automakers to add vehicle-to-infrastructure communications — so everyone’s vehicle would broadcast its location, speed, and so on, much in the same way your smartphone does now.

During those discussions, however, the British insurance industry jumped on board and asked to be allowed to siphon off all data from connected cars. The problem, as stated at the time, is that this could make actuaries obsolete in the insurance industry. That’s because, even without them, insurance carriers could potentially set much higher rates for auto insurance based on your driving habits, as reported by your car. Even if you’ve never had a ticket or an accident, you could be rated as a drunk who never completely stops at intersections and constantly speeds.

Think about it. You have gotten no tickets, had no accidents in 20 years; but from time to time you might do a rolling stop while making a right-hand turn, and you drive 75 miles an hour on the freeway like everyone else — though the posted speed limit is only 60 miles an hour. In England, you might stop at your local pub after work to have one pint, just one, with your friends. So: No tickets, no accidents, but when your insurance company’s computer servers follow your vehicle every day, you’re speeding, you don’t stop for stop signs, and you’re parked at a drinking establishment two nights a week. Without an officer of the law’s ever becoming involved, your car has indicted and convicted you of poor driving habits.

It’s about to get worse. Because we soon will have the technology to prevent anyone from ever driving over the speed limit again. Starting in 2022, the European Union wants an intelligent speed assistance system to be standard in every new vehicle sold. The UK’s Department of Transportation said they will adopt this EU automotive mandate even if they are no longer a part of the EU.

My Mother the Car

Here’s how it will work. Automobiles will have cameras installed that can read local speed limit signs; they will work with global positioning satellites, connected to your vehicle’s navigation system, to force your vehicle to slow down to whatever that posted speed limit is. That’s right, your personal vehicle will never be able to speed again. Although those proposing this mandate say heavier pressure on the gas pedal will override that system. If so, what’s the point?

According to the BBC Ford, Mercedes, Peugeot, Renault, and Volvo vehicles already have parts of that speed-limiting technology in place. You may well have seen this; in late-model cars some navigation systems already read and display the posted speed limit. Now, imagine if you will that you wake up late one day, jump into your new vehicle and head to work on I-30, only to find that your vehicle doesn’t want go any faster than the posted 60mph limit; meanwhile, everyone driving an older vehicle without ISA technology blows by you at 80. On a 1 – 10 frustration scale, that might peg out at 10.

Of course, this system is by no means ready for prime time. Many times while reviewing vehicles with the most recent navigation systems on board, I’ve seen the speed limit indicator read the 35mph speed limit sign on the freeway access road, even though I was on the freeway. At this technology’s current level of sophistication, that car would only move at 35 miles an hour instead of the real posted speed limits of the freeway. Worse, many current systems confuse the TexPress Lanes’ 75mph sign with the lower speed limit posted on the commoners’ side of the freeway.

This is an easy though possibly more expensive fix. Cadillac’s Super Cruise autonomous driving system is around eight times more sensitive in pinpointing your vehicle’s exact location using GPS data. Meaning that, instead of seeing your vehicle within 20 feet of where you really are, it’s more likely to know exactly where your vehicle is in the lane you are in. We would have to have that level of technology to make this new system work.

And then we would have to have all of a vehicle’s computerized mapping updated in real time. After all, consider a section of freeway that had had work being performed and a 50mph speed limit because of that construction; when it was finished and back to higher speed limits once again, the car’s computer system would need to know that immediately. Again, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed and updated quickly — but probably won’t be.

But now comes the real question. Would you want this on your personal vehicle? OK, Councilwoman Ann Zadeh, put your hand down. Would anyone else want this on your personal vehicle? Here’s a slight variation of that question: Would you want this on your vehicle, knowing you may never drive over the posted speed limit again, when most of the other 250 million drivers on the road with you can drive at any speed they want?

What’s next for these mandates? Do they program your vehicle to always stop completely at any stop sign or light? That can be an easy reality, too. Audi already has a vehicle-to-infrastructure system in some of its vehicles that tells you exactly how fast you need to drive to make the next green light — or how long until your red light turns green. Doesn’t really work, but one day it will. In terms of mission creep, software controlling your car is just beginning.

Wake Up and Smell Big Brother

Before you think this is all too futuristic and the public will never accept it, this is a mandate that is going to happen in the EU — which means car manufacturers worldwide will be inclined to add this technology to all vehicles to lower costs. Then again, it will be sold as a real benefit to the public. In fact it already is being sold that way.

Recently one of the large auto manufacturers pulled its dealers into a meeting in the Metroplex. The discussion concerned the large insurance company the manufacturer owns, and how in the future dealers would be able to sell that insurance to their new car customers. The big benefit is that if one has a wreck, this insurance policy will replace the parts with original manufacturer’s parts; other insurance companies force body shops to use non-OEM parts or stuff out of salvage yards.

The downside? It’s the British story all over again. Over there, new vehicles will constantly be transmitting data while being driven; therefore, insurers will be capable of basing one’s auto insurance rates on one’s daily driving habits, including speeding, rolling stops, and so on. Having a perfect driving record with no tickets and no accidents won’t matter — and it won’t last long.

You first think about your privacy concerns in being forced to give away all of your private data, and maybe it doesn’t cross your mind that you already have: Companies like Facebook and Google gather your information and compile and sell the data. They follow you around on the Internet even when you aren’t on their websites. Your smartphone already gives away your position by pinging off cell towers; and companies like Uber were caught following passengers after they left their rides.

Seems a bit creepy, certainly way too much like Big Brother in 1984, but it actually is happening now. And the auto industry is being told to put it on steroids to control the functions of our vehicles as we drive, under the guise of protecting us from ourselves.

It is the ultimate rejection of Darwin’s law of natural selection, but then again that’s what most safety mandates are by nature.

In the hands of a corporation with integrity, data and control can be a great thing for humanity and can improve the lives of many. While you might well hate being speed limited in the future, you might well love that the same system also stops that driver who routinely goes 90 miles an hour in the rain and weaves in and out of tight traffic, never considering that sooner or later they are going to hurt or kill themselves —and maybe whomever they run into, as well.

On the other hand, if you are of a certain age you have lived through a period when data you had no idea was even being collected, often by government agencies, was used against citizens that they believed weren’t of the right political mindset. What outraged us 40 years ago is less damaging than your Facebook file in the wrong hands today.

Still this is coming quickly. And when the day comes that you buy your new car and the finance director pitches you on buying insurance from the auto manufacturer, with the promise of always using new parts for repairs, you’ll know it’s all based on the car you bought secretly beaming your driving habits to them.

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: edwallace570@gmail.com