By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about Ford’s creepy MyKey system (see here), now standard equipment in all new Ford vehicles, and the ugly possibilities for controlling how we drive by controlling how the car can be driven. This week, I’m test-driving one of the latest Lincolns (the new MKZ) and it’s got some more of the same:
As you drive, an icon within the speedometer (small image to the right of the speedometer needle) tells you what the speed limit is on the road you happen to be on — updated continuously via GPS as you drive.
The car doesn’t do anything — yet — beyond oh-so-helpfully remind you how fast the government insists you ought to be driving. But, consider the possibilities — and consider how all the technological pieces of the puzzle are rapidly coming together.
GPS mapping of virtually every surface street in the country is a done thing. A majority of new cars come equipped with GPS navigation — which is rapidly becoming a default standard in much the same way as power windows or air conditioning. Within a few years at most, it will be as difficult to find a new car without GPS as it is right now to find a new car without power windows or AC.
The latest versions of these GPS systems have “real time” functionality. They can adjust route guidance to take account of accidents along your planned route, for instance. This is handy. But the same functionality can be put to other uses, too. For instance, there is no technological reason why the new Lincoln MKZ’s ability to keep abreast of the speed limit wherever you happen to be driving could not also be used to limit the speed you drive — or at least, record your failure to abide by the speed limit and perhaps report your noncompliance to the authorities. Or more likely, your insurance company.
Remember MyKey (all new Lincolns have it, too). An “administrator” can program the car to never exceed a pre-set speed. Once programmed, the system cannot be over-ridden except by someone who has the “administration” key. For the present, this is you — the vehicle’s owner. But the fact is that Ford — or the government — or your insurance company — could simply arrogate to itself “administrator” powers — and that will be the end of your ability to use your car as you wish to use it. The car’s electronic nanny knows the speed limit is 55 — or 35 — or whatever it happens to be at any given moment — and will not allow you to drive the car any faster, no matter how hard you stomp on the gas pedal. (Just as you’re not allowed to build an addition on “your” home — without the government’s permission.)
Cars could also simply be turned off, individually (as when you haven’t paid a fine or done some other thing to incur the government’s displeasure) or en masse — in the event of some “national emergency.” Imagine a Boston Bomber scenario. For security reasons, the authorities throw a switch — and no one goes anywhere.
At least, not by car.
Far-fetched? No, technological fact. (See also the hacking of a Prius — making the car accelerate, brake (or not brake) via remote control. This is not a Prius-specific possibility. Any modern computer-controlled car is subject to being hacked — to being controlled externally — in this way.)
Oh, come on, Eric. They’d never do that. It’s ridiculous!
Really? In this day and age?
“Speeding” is, after all, illegal. How, pray, will you — how will anyone — defend continuing to allow people to own vehicles capable of being used in an illegal manner? When technology is available that would “save lives”?
The entire legal system is now premised on the concept of prior restraint — on the idea of controlling people who haven’t yet done anything in order to prevent them from possibly doing it. The public accepts random, your-papers-please checkpoints on the theory that someone might be driving without a license, without an updated registration or state-issued “safety” sticker. Perhaps unbuckled — or much worse, “drunk.”
Why not accept in-car systems that make speeding impossible — or at least, impossible to get away with? The children! Think about the children!
To me, it’s all as obvious as a freight train coming down the tracks — with us stalled out on the tracks, awaiting the inevitable. The insurance mafia has succeeded in making its service mandatory. It is beta-testing in-car monitoring (see here) which will likewise morph from being something you could opt for to something you cannot opt out of. The cars themselves will, within a few years, all come equipped with the necessary monitoring equipment.
And then, the gate will be slammed shut.
New cars are this close to being independent of driver control. This new Lincoln? In addition to monitoring the posted limit wherever you go, it will flash a series of frantic red lights if it thinks you haven’t slowed down fast enough and will actually step in and apply the brakes for you if it decides you haven’t done it fast enough on your own (Collision Warning With Brake Support). It beeps and flashes other warnings if you tread across the yellow line (Lane Departure Warning). The car is capable of parking itself — no input (beyond pushing a button) required of you.
It’s not just Lincoln — or Ford, either. I merely used their systems as examples of similar systems you’ll find in a growing roster of new cars. It will not be long before no new cars lack such systems. At which point, we’ll be locked in — and become passengers more than drivers. And as passengers, we’ll just be along for the ride. The when/where — and how — will be up to someone (or something) else.