Yesterday's Science Fiction…


In my Reason cover story on John Gilmore and his fight for anonymity while traveling, back in our Aug./Sept. 2003 issue, I posited the following fantasy of a future innovation in a world of endless tracking and surveillance in which only the guilty would have reason to fear:

Your car is…equipped with a transponder-triggered traffic-law enforcement device that spits a speeding ticket out of your dash every time you exceed the speed limit for more than a minute, the sum precisely calibrated to the level of your crime. (You got a problem with that? Only the guilty have reason to fear!)

Now, this news story from the Sydney Morning Herald, on the prototype Toyota Sportiva Coupe:

Disputing a speed-camera fine could soon be a thing of the past. Today, Toyota will unveil a car that takes away the guesswork when it comes to identifying the leadfoot in the family.

Finding the rightful recipient of the ticket could be as simple as sliding in a mobile phone-style SIM-card instead of a key. The card would contain details of the driver's licence and address.

Wireless technology would allow the car to communicate with the speed camera, and the fine could be deducted from the driver's credit card before he or she even made it home.

Even easier than my clunky, old-fashioned notion of a paper ticket coming from the dash. Of course that wouldn't be necessary–how archaic my thinking was.

NEXT: Lamar Alexander's Still Alive?

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  1. If the automobile is smart enough to watch your every move, why doesn’t it just go ahead and do the driving for you? That way there won’t be any traffic laws to enforce or DUI checkpoints to bother with.

    Somehow I feel like all this surveillance is going to end badly. These days, even infants need Social Security numbers. I shudder to imagine what would have happened if the Nazis had come into power during an era like this one with its IT resources and voluminous databases. For whatever reason, most Americans are not bothered by this stuff and consider people who worry about excessive surveillance to be crackpots.

  2. And does *nothing* to slow you down — you can drive as fast as you can afford! That’s great news to those (like me) who have been struck and seriously injured by speeding drivers.

    The point of stopping the drivers is to get them to cease the hazardous behavior that drew the attention of law enforcement. This idea simply moves speed enforcement from being a safety measure (keeping vehicle speed in keeping with stopping distances in residential and other areas with high pedestrian traffic) to a revenue stream. But then speed and red-light cameras did that already.

    But then maybe we can use this new money for grade separation between pedestrians and automobiles…

  3. If Toyota or any other car company wants to get in bed with the authorities like this, why not just go all the way and make a car that is incapable of exceeding the speed limit? Local limits could be transmitted to the car and it would set max speed accordingly. Of course, that would only make any sense if it was all about safety, but how would the gov. replace the speeding revenue.

    Here’s hoping this innovation from Toyota sells like shit flavored hotcakes.

  4. There are opportunities for Good as well. The speed limit could reset itself automatically to the speed 85% of the drivers travel, getting rid of School Zones in effect.

  5. I actually wasn’t kidding when I referred to cars that could drive themselves. The benefits are obvious: safer travel, more independence for the blind or frail, more time while in transit for other activities (sleeping, working, smoking/drinking, entertainment) and better utilization of scarce highways.

    My concern is about privacy and anonymity. I am not really bothered by Scott Peterson’s car being fitted with a GPS device because that took time, effort, and money and is unlikely, for now, to be done except in rare cases. I’m more concerned about the future, when such information will be more universal and instantly and cheaply available to the authorities.

    I am reminded of the Bush Administration’s attempt to subpoena abortion records in a current case. One of their arguments, if memory serves, is that in an era of insurance companies paying for health care, people no longer have reason to expect that their medical information will be kept private.

  6. Larry,
    I have a friend working on SmartCar projects and he always talked about the car being the designated driver and a way for you and your SO to get it on in the back seat without grossing anyone else out. He siad the largest obstacle was the unprdictability of other human drivers. He said that if every car was smart, we could have the technology on the street tomorrow, but to roll it out w/ human drivers already on the road means a lot more intelligence (read: processing power) is needed. Incidentally, a lot of the new technologies for luxury cars are moving more in that direction, but they are rolling them out slowly because people like to drive. The techs I’m talking about are the “smart” cruise control, the lane drifting notifiers, night-vision, IR/sonar that tells you how far vehicles are, etc. These all will lead to a smart car in the future. The great thing is once smart cars become the norm traffic will improve once the idiocies of human driving are mostly eliminated (I mean inexplicable breaking and the speed up, slow down flow disruptions).

  7. this is as bad as those spy toilets. See this New York times article
    and this

  8. I’d like to see private toll roads or maybe concrete-separated lanes go driverless as a way of introducing it. If the HOV lanes on I-95 south of DC were converted to it, a lot of people would go get the upgrade so they could do other things instead of driving. Then you just transition to normal driving when you get out of them.

    That should take care of the ‘everybody has to do it at once’ problem. Just introduce it slowly in certain places.

  9. So what this mean is that the automotive market will be divided into two more niches – those who want to buy an automobile with the new feature (e.g. protective parents with a teen driver) and those who don’t want it.

  10. ” I shudder to imagine what would have happened if the Nazis had come into power during an era like this one with its IT resources and voluminous databases.”

    From the conspiracy theories I’ve read, you have every right to be afraid. IBM and its punchcards were supposedly very useful to the Nazis when it was time to track down the people they felt like killing. Jews, gypsies, etc.

  11. One has to wonder, if the device in your car stops working for some reason, would you be prohibited from driving it?

  12. Hence the need to make it work with live vehicles. Maybe they need to combine the car computer with the chess playing computer.

  13. Ole Gilmore is fighting a battle that is of no interest to me.
    What does he want, to pay cash for plane tickets?
    It’s be ID’d at the airport or drive your license plate around.
    He gets searched for vegetables heading for California,
    he gets searched by metal detectors at entrances.
    He leaves fingerprints all over everything.
    Like the article points out, we use credit cards, etc.
    Where is it in the Constitution that we have a right to privacy?
    I mean a right to privacy in public.
    Gilmore should object to the searches at the airport
    before objecting to having to give his name.
    Maybe he should wear a chadri, and have one over his car.

    As for the cars, I would support a black box
    which recorded the speed and speed limit at a location
    so speeding could be policed electronically.
    I don’t like it when ten people are speeding,
    and the cop picks one to pull and ticket.
    “You car was the easiest to remember” he says
    when I asked, “why pull me, and not one of the others?”

  14. I think it’s the revenue stream element that Kenton A. Hoover mentioned that will keep this from catching on. I think the revenue stream has been the driving force behind speed limits for decades. Safety or fuel economy is just the “front”.

    Time stamps on turnpike tickets could theoretically already allow “perfect enforcement” of speed limits on limited access highways, but if that was done, speeding would necessarily drop to near zero. That would kill the revenue stream, and be economically devastating to many states and municipalities. It’s much more prudent for them to “harvest” speeders in the traditional fashion. If they really want to increase revenues, they can always jack up the fines. Who’s going to object? Criminals?!

    The only way the “smart ticketing” model could work would be if they lowered the fines to below punitive levels, and it effectively operated as a “speed tax”, as Kenton jokingly suggested…

  15. I think there’s a lot everybody’s missing here. First of all, it wouldn’t be necessary to buy a new car to have one of these things — a simple, cheap GPS module would do it. Already my $150 handheld GPS will keep a track where each data point in the track contains my location, speed and direction–it wouldn’t be hard to match this later against a road database with speed limits.

    And then what I think people are missing is how this technology might be implemented — not as a government requirement, but as an insurance industry program. What if isurance companies started offering a discount to drivers who agreed to have one of these devices installed in their car and to have the data uploaded to the insurance company periodically? Think of what they could do with that data in terms of customizing their risk assessments and calculating rates based on usage. How many miles do you drive in high-accident areas during peak hours? They could literally charge and incremental rate for each mile driven depending on various risk factors.

    And what if you refuse, on privacy grounds, to allow such a device to be installed? Well then you end up in the high-risk pool consisting mostly of people who refuse because they tend to drive like maniacs 😉 Your insurance rates go through the roof. And any insurance company that didn’t implement such a plan? They’d be in big trouble, because all the reckless drivers would gravitate toward them.

  16. Mark,
    I doubt your rates would go through the roof if you were a good driver. If you have a clean record you may have to pay a “privacy premium” because they wouldn’t be able to fine tune your risk. However, you wouldn’t end up paying teenager rates or a couple of DUIs, 3 accidents and 5 ticket rates either. I’d pay extra to keep the Man off my back. Remember, if someone starts charging people too much to not have a transponder, someone else will fill in the gap.

  17. Economist David Friedman proposed a similar idea in his book Law’s Order. In his vision, though, the traffic cops would be hired by insurance companies in order to enforce the insurance contract by policing actual behavior on the road. He compares this to the current practice of insurance companies of inspecting insured businesses for fire prevention equipment in order to avoid the moral hazard of an insured business failing to take precautions against fire.

  18. DJ,
    Just one more step, and we’ve got a car that collects your income tax.
    Getting back to the Toyota proposal, I wonder how many minutes it will be before black-market transponders that transmit fake ID’s show up?

  19. The real privacy battle in future will arise not from government big-brotherism but from the computerization of everything from cars to sneakers. When “Things Think” they will need sensors and memory. These devices will become a de facto surveillance fog that will surround all of us 24/7.

    I think we need to concentrate on the legal and cultural means of dealing with this information rather than trying to avoid smart technologies altogether.

  20. Garym – I’d have Elvis doing laps around the beltway 3 days after this thing hit market.

  21. The thing is, for many drivers, having this technology installed could actually be a convenience. Now they won’t have to waste time being pulled over and lectured by a state trooper. They can go where they want to go as quickly as they need to get there, and then take the time to pay for it later. So while I agree that the privacy factor is a concern, I doubt the general public will raise a fuss.

  22. ” assumption of “innocent until proven guilty.”

    If the car driver was presumed innocent,
    then there would be no ticket written.
    These tickets don’t go against a driver’s record,
    but against the registration of the vehicle,
    for anyone could have been driving the car.
    Just like a parking ticket. They can be appealed.

    When I get caught, I remember all the times I got away.

  23. Fear not, Orwellians. If these cars are sold to the public, I predict a hack to disable the feature will be on Slashdot in under 30 minutes.

  24. “These devices will become a de facto surveillance fog that will surround all of us 24/7. ”

    Cell phones already do this. People love ’em.

  25. The problem with speed limits is that they are selectively enforced. They are in effect, a lottery tax. Almost no driver obeys them all the time, and those that do probably shouldn’t be driving.

    Privacy issues aside, I welcome perfect speed limit enforcement. Maybe then people will be motivated to change a system that allows cops to harass whomever they want. There are always problems when the state profits from enforcing the law.

  26. One scary thing about the new ticketing system: nowadays, if you get stopped for speeding you KNOW that you now owe the court some money, and so you drive the rest of the way home in a law-abiding manner. With this new technology, if you get ticketed and don’t learn about it until the trip is over, I can easily see a situation where a person leaves New York City and by the time they get to California they’re surprised to discover that their entire savings account will be wiped out in order to pay for all their tickets.

  27. What about one of those EU fines
    proportional to your income?

    Of course in the US, that would be
    disporportional so that not only the more you make,
    the more you pay, but you pay in ever increasing proportion.
    But then, we make it deductible, so the Aston-Martin
    drivers will end up paying nothing after taxes.
    Oh yeah, we could also buy SPEED from inner city,
    not car owning, elderly, poor people etc.
    so that while we have a paid license to speed,
    we are helping the poor, the old, the inner city,
    and the soldiers overseas who can sell their speed.

  28. I predict a hack to disable the feature will be on Slashdot in under 30 minutes.

    It wouldn’t be very user friendly, but yanking the power from the transmitter should do the trick. If you’re even remotely friendly with a mechanic (the greasemonkey who knocked out your honeycombs, for instance) it would take mere minutes. Moreover, as law enforcement comes to rely totally on this technology to catch speeders, you fall through the cracks permanently.

  29. all of this is just another great resaon to keep my 1978 ford ltd up and running.

    although i’m sure it won’t be long before my car is declared some sort of menace to society/environment/children/cause du jour. can’t have old cars threatening the system, can we?

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