- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Toyota recently demonstrated a car that will adjust its behavior to the driver’s driving record, according to Wired online magazine.

If you have a history of speeding, the car’s computer will reduce the amount of power the engine produces.

It was just a design concept. But why would a company design something it had no intention of building? Still, it exists, and shows the directions in which designers’ minds are working.

The car, the Sportivo, would require you to insert your driver’s license into a reader to start the engine. The license plate would be a screen that displays the number on your driver’s license. This would allow a driver’s infractions to be traced to the driver, not the owner.

Here is an example of perhaps the dominant technological trend of our time: The rapid increase of governmental surveillance of everyone and, perhaps more unsettling, the automated control of behavior. As always, the watchfulness is justified as being for good purposes. Who wants hot rods to have the horsepower to hurt others? Who wants the wrong person to the get the ticket?

Yet the idea would mean more remote computers monitoring us and deciding what we can do.

In October, Wired ran a story containing this sentence: “The Georgia Institute of Technology is sponsoring a study using global positioning systems to track the movements of cars and monitor the motoring habits of their drivers.”

The idea was to let insurance companies adjust their rates to the number of miles you drive and to your driving habits. As usual, the intentions are good. Why should you pay high rates when you drive only 3,000 miles a year when the average is 12,000 or whatever?

No, I don’t think Georgia has totalitarian tendencies. That’s the problem. It’s much easier to oppose totalitarians than convenience and lower rates for insurance.

But savor this: “Conversely, if the tracking device documents a habit of speeding through neighborhoods with schools or retirement homes, the insurance company would probably think twice before lowering an individual’s rates, and might even raise them.”

Note though the unmistakable thrust: Our computers are going to watch you 24/7 with satellites and automatically punish you for doing the wrong things.

Also from Wired: “A bill introduced this week at the New Mexico state legislature would have mandated the installation of blood-alcohol-testing devices in every new car by 2008, and in every used car by 2009.”

It didn’t pass. But it marks another attempt to use technology to automate law enforcement.

Today’s technology could keep track of every car in the country, and more easily of every car in urban regions or on big highways, and of who was driving it at what speed.

We could keep track of almost everything people do.

Two questions: First, do we want to? When it’s 3 a.m. on an empty interstate and you’re eager to get home and push it up to 80 mph, do you want a reckless driving ticket in your e-mail in-box the next morning? Or do we want a bit of slop in the gears of enforcement?

Second, is it avoidable? Or is the technology so cheap, so easy to use, so convenient to so many people and organizations that, even without pretexts like combating terrorism, it will come into use?

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