Search for “car accidents” on any video sharing site, and you’ll quickly find thousands upon thousands of videos of vehicles large and small smashing into each other on highways and byways around the world. For whatever reason, Russia seems to have some of the craziest crashes, but the U.S. has its share of wild accident vids as well.
The Department of Transportation is trying to do something about all this vehicular carnage by mandating newly made vehicles contain communication technology that allows them to talk with other cars on the road – something they call V2V.
According to a report by NPR:
“V2V crash avoidance technology has game-changing potential to significantly reduce the number of crashes, injuries and deaths on our nation’s roads,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Acting Administrator David Friedman said in a statement. “Decades from now, it’s likely we’ll look back at this time period as one in which the historical arc of transportation safety considerably changed for the better, similar to the introduction of standards for seat belts, airbags, and electronic stability control technology.”
Essentially, the system works by tracking your speed and location, and then transmitting that data anonymously to surrounding vehicles. If the system detects an imminent collision, it warns the driver to take evasive action.
So far, so good. I think we could all use a little less smashiness in our lives.
There is a downside here, though. Just like other attempts to make ourselves safer through the miracles of modern technology, collision avoidance systems create yet another vector for intrusions upon citizen privacy.
It’s one thing for car insurance companies to offer incentives to customers willing to use tracking systems to voluntarily monitor and report their driving activity on a time-limited basis. It’s quite another for the government to mandate such data sharing on an involuntary and continuing basis.
Yes, driving is a privilege and, of course, minimizing injuries and deaths is an important public safety concern – but what about privacy? You can bet that once the technology is in place, individuals and organizations, both good and evil, will be lining up to collect, store, analyze, and exploit the data from V2V systems.
The DOT claims that the data being transmitted is anonymous, but doesn’t define the term. Do the police have access to it? Is the data stored somewhere? We don’t know.
The police, in particular, could easily harness this technology to track vehicle movements and issue tickets for violations with little investment of investigative or patrol resources. On the surface, that might sound like a benefit. But, as with so-called red-light cameras, the potential for technology failure and other abuses is quite real.
Also, when we look at V2V in the context of all the other technology currently being used to track drivers, the privacy issues become even more prevalent. As one Youtuber put it in his comments about this technology:
Feds want put a tracking device in your car. So you don’t crash. It’s for safety. There will be a chip that sends a signal to every police-car’s computer that gives them your VIN, Name/State/Address of registry and license plate. For your safety. I mean, you might have a Joint outside Colorado and that would be dangerous to the public.
He’s overstating things just a bit, as internet commenters everywhere tend to do, but he is identifying the central tension that arises time and again between safety and privacy.
Is it reasonable – even in the interest of safety – for my driving behavior to be constantly monitored and possibly recorded by strangers or government officials , and to also have my license plate read and recorded anytime I enter and exit a city, and to also have my car photographed when going through intersections, such that anyone with the motivation and resources can scrutinize my every move?
If you say yes, then what are the limits to privacy in the US? Do we want the minutiae of our lives to be tracked in ways that compromise basic ideas of free movement and freedom from government interference without just cause, even if doing so results in an increase in safety?
As we head down the road of improving driver safety, we also need to keep privacy firmly in mind. It’s all too easy to be lured by the promise that technology will make our lives better without fully considering all of the ramifications.
What are your thoughts?
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