Heebie Jeebies

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

There is a downside to getting these brand-new cars to test drive all the time. I know what’s coming before you do. A hint, the leading edge. The camel’s nose under the tent. It’s just a whiff, sometimes.

But the aroma is unmistakable.

The smell of Uncle. His presence, spoiling all the fun.

It makes me toss and turn; makes it hard to enjoy the cars. Here’s an example:

For about the past year, I’ve noticed that — irrespective of make or model — new cars with factory installed GPS have this creepy little icon on the LCD display screen that reminds you (oh-so-helpfully) of the speed limit on whatever road you happen to be driving on at that particular moment. It’s white with black letters — just like the real (physical) signs. And it updates in real time, as you drive.

Think about that.

What do you suppose it portends?

I’ve long suspected that it’s like Lego. This — a helpful notification about the speed limit — is the first piece. A building block. Onto which the next block will be placed.

This week, I got to see the next block.

A brand-new (and all-new) 2014 Mazda3 sedan arrived for me to test drive. All the latest bells and whistles. Including an updated take on the oh-so-helpful speed limit “sign.” It now turns angry red in real time whenever and wherever you exceed the speed limit.

It shifts back to black on white once you reduce your speed to within legal parameters.

Now, kiddies, what do you suppose the next piece of electronic Lego will be?

To recap:

Most new cars have GPS, which makes it feasible for the car to “know” at any given moment where it is, where it’s headed — and where it’s been. As well as how fast it’s going. Or gone. The data can be — is — recorded.

It can also be transmitted.

In order for the car to know its position (and speed) at any given moment, it must be able to communicate with GPS satellites in real time. This communication is not a one-way street. Many factory GPS systems have “concierge” or “emergency” services that are explicitly two-way. Lesser known — but working on the same principle — many new cars (like the 2014 BMW 3 I have this week) can send — and receive — service updates and such like. Wi-fi Internet/e-mail access is becoming a not-uncommon in-car feature.

Cars so equipped “know” exactly what the speed limit is on any given road, at any given moment — just as they know the name/number of the road itself. They also know when you’re “speeding” — as Mazda’s helpful little helper helpfully lets you know. I have no doubt they also know exactly how much you’re “speeding,” too. This is not — yet — displayed.

But bet your bippie it is recorded.

All new cars — by law — are being fitted with Event Data Recorders (EDRs) or “black boxes” that record this data — and many others things besides. The ’15 Corvette will — reportedly — take video of your driving. And store it. See here.

Here is an interesting preview of what’s in store for the rest of us — not just Corvette drivers.

Can you smell it yet?

The ’14 Mazda3, like an ever-expanding roll call of new cars, also offers pre-emptive braking. Mazda calls it something else, of course (“Smart City Brake Support,” to be precise. Yack). But that’s what it does. Pre-emptively brake. The car decides it’s time to slow — or even stop — and does so. You are second banana. This usurper technology is integral — essential — for the practical implementation of the driver-free (Google calls it driverless, but that’s a misnomer) car. The car has a driver.

It’s just not you.

The premise underlying all of this is: You are (pick one) inept, reckless, addled — and cannot be trusted to drive the car. The computer will drive it for you. More accurately, the people who program the computer will drive “your” (ahem) car for you. It’s not safe for you to drive the car. This is the sickly song of our age.

Saaaaaaaafety uber alles.

To get back to the speed limit helper thing. Using GPS, the car knows when you’re “speeding” — every single time you “speed.” This is easily done by comparing your velocity at any given moment with the posted limit on that road, which info the car downloads continuously via the GPS. The data about your “speeding” can be recorded — and transmitted.

Add a dash of insurance mafia lust to rifle your pockets — and your legal inability to tell them to piss off. You cannot — by law — say “no” to insurance. You must buy it. And they will tell you how much you’ll pay.

The cherry on top: The government’s increasingly demented but ever-more-turgid insistence that it must know about — and control — literally everything. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments are impotent relics of a sepia-tinted age, receding rapidly in the rearview.

And what’s ahead?

Real-time dunning for every single instance of “speeding.” Perhaps by the insurance mafia — perhaps by the government. From our point of view, it amounts to the same thing.

Driving is about to become a bunch more expensive — and whole lot less fun.

They could of course also make “speeding” impossible — by programming the car to be incapable of going faster than whatever the speed limit happens to be on any given road at any given moment. That would satisfy the Safety Fetish.

But because there’s so much money at stake, probably what will happen is they’ll require that cars be fitted with some updated take on the EZ Pass thing — already in use to automatically debit your account for tolls and such. Why not do the same to “speeders”? They are already seriously talking about tax-by-the-mile.

I’m telling you, it’s coming.

I can smell it.

Can’t you?



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