Watching the Road, While the Road Watches You


Interesting scare story in Charlotte, NC's, Creative Loafing about the possible future of a high-tech road that keeps track of us wherever we go, and about the not-widely-reported government/private enterprise organization, Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA), working and lobbying to create the system. Here's the heart of the fear:

National databases to track our every move? A national network of government-controlled traffic management centers that use wireless technology for traffic surveillance by 2022? But the reality is that much of the technology and infrastructure needed to bring the system to life has already been put in place.

In the old days, if you turned on your windshield wipers, power just went to the wipers. But in the cars of today, a miniature self-contained computer system of sensors and actuators controls the wipers and just about everything else the car does. All that information winds up on something inside your car called a data bus.

"We have the ability to communicate essentially any of the vehicle information that's on that data bus, typically encompassing the state of about 200 sensors and actuators," said Dave Acton, an ITS consultant to General Motors…..

For automakers and tech companies, the databus is a goldmine of information that can be transmitted via imbedded cell phone or GPS technology. This year alone, 2 million cars in General Motors' fleet were equipped with the GPS technology that would enable customers to subscribe to OnStar-type services if they choose. Eventually, says Acton, all cars will likely be equipped with it.

But the same technology installed in GM's fleet is also capable of transmitting the car's location and speed to any government agency or corporate entity that wants it without the driver knowing, whether they subscribe to OnStar-type services or not.

Though government-run transportation centers across the country are not yet collecting the data, Acton predicts they will begin to within the next decade.

This story touches on the always-present other side of technological privacy violation debates: these technologies always have positive, desirable uses as well. For example, they could help in instituting more intelligent pricing schemes for roads. Another promise held out by advocates of this sort of intelligent transportation system is that it could severely curtail car accidents:

…the system will have to do far more than use GPS technology to transmit where cars have been and what they did along the way. Cars will need to swap information instantaneously with each other and with roadside readers at highway speeds in real time, something today's GPS technology can't do. To solve the problem, the federal government is pushing back the boundaries of wireless technology to create devices that can make the vision possible. Using something called Dedicated Short Range Communications, or DSRC, the transceivers the government is developing would allow cars to carry on simultaneous conversations with each other and with corresponding roadside units, sending messages or warnings throughout the transportation management system instantly.

These "conversations" could prevent collisions or stop drivers from running off the road, while giving transportation managers an instantaneous view of road and weather conditions. With a DSRC transceiver and GPS technology in every car, automakers believe they can wipe out nearly all automobile fatalities in the US.

The story isn't clear on what this means. In some cases, a warning signal to remind the driver to look at the damn road would prevent an impending collision, but many of them occur because events change too quickly for the driver or car to react safely and prevent the impact–for example, when someone changes lanes or brakes abruptly and unexpectedly. Perhaps these systems envision making it impossible for you to break or change lanes unexpectedly, but the story isn't clear on that, and neither is this ITSA hype sheet pushing the vision.

For those interested in exploring the future of intelligent transport in a deeper manner than the Creative Loafing piece, or this blog entry, here's a place to start looking.