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A wheely stupid idea: speed spies in every car

The Sunday Times reports that the European Union wants us all to have digital spies in our cars.

Black box recorders could be installed in all new cars under a European Union ruling.

The aircraft-style equipment would also act as a tracker, using global positioning satellites to record the location and route of a vehicle and to tell how fast a driver is going and whether seatbelts are being worn.

Like most dumb ideas, the plan will apparently improve our safety – but by its very nature, a black box recorder only records what has actually happened, rather than what’s going to happen. So if you get pissed out of your head and drive into a gaggle of schoolchildren, the black box won’t prevent you from killing anybody; all it can do is record just how fast you were going when you hit them. And in most cases, we don’t need black boxes to record that information, as the police and insurance firm accident investigators can usually identify the specific circumstances of any crash by checking tyre marks, vehicle damage and so on.

The thought of satellites monitoring our cars to check whether we’re wearing seatbelts – hardly the most pressing problem on the roads, not least because (unless I’ve missed the headlines about people flying through their windscreens and hitting pensioners like bizarre, fleshy cruise missiles) refusing to wear a seatbelt doesn’t put anyone other than yourself and/or your passengers at risk – seems like overkill, and of course it is. Nothing about the proposal makes sense, unless you’re utterly paranoid.

Which, of course, I am.

The black box proposal doesn’t make sense if the boxes are passive devices, boxes that merely record data for future use. If, however, the boxes are active – they can take action based on the data they record, or based on external stimuli – then they become much more interesting (and scary). If the box were to include an electronic speed limiter – something you’ll find in lots of modern cars, particularly performance ones – then it could respond to electronic speed limit signs. Drive into a “twenty’s plenty” zone and the speed limiter would kick in; you can mash the loud pedal as much as you like, but the car would stick religiously to the speed limit. Or the box could control your engine and braking in much the same way today’s anti-theft systems work: if for whatever reason an official wants to stop you, they simply hit a few keys on the keyboard and your car glides to a halt and locks the doors until the police arrive.

I find that sort of thing sinister, not because I’m a boy racer – after a few near-misses in my early 20s, my driving style is akin to that of a paranoid pensioner – or because I enjoy mowing down pedestrians (as much as I’d like to, sometimes) but because yet again it changes the relationship between us and the state. While some people do indeed drive like maniacs, most of us don’t; yet smart black boxes treat us all like criminals, monitoring our every move on the assumption that sooner or later, we’ll break the law. We’re no longer free agents, innocent until proven guilty; we’re all criminals, who must be watched at all times to make sure we stay honest.

My main objection, though, is much simpler. Governments and technology go together like puppies and napalm: whenever a state – particularly the UK, whose track record in IT is abysmal – comes up with a bright technological idea, it makes a huge horse’s arse of the project. It invariably misses the deadline by years, costs a million times more than budgeted, and doesn’t work properly – and if you’re one of the people whose data gets messed up, fixing the problem can be a hugely complicated and frustrating exercise.

Black boxes in cars, then: hugely expensive, of dubious merit, with awful implications for civil liberties and almost guaranteed to be a cock-up from day one – which means they’re almost certainly going to become mandatory. Perhaps instead of worrying about making smarter cars, we should try to find smarter politicians.