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.

5 thoughts on “A wheely stupid idea: speed spies in every car

  1. Squander Two says:

    You’re making a basically good point, but I have to take issue with some of this.

    > 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.

    In theory, yes, they can. But, generally, they don’t, because the police, as we all know, are too busy failing to catch real criminals to bother. Insurance companies very rarely check this sort of thing. And these black boxes would be very handy when the police change their story because the person who caused the crash is the daughter of a policeman, as recently happened to a friend of mine, thoroughly screwing him.

    > refusing to wear a seatbelt doesn’t put anyone other than yourself and/or your passengers at risk

    I hear that one all the time, and it’s bollocks. If you’re driving a car, you have a responsibility to control it. In a major crash, seatbelts are neither here nor there, but the majority of crashes are minor. A seatbelt makes the difference between knocking yourself unconscious on the windscreen or steering wheel of a still-moving car and remaining conscious and in control of the vehicle. Also, if you’re on a public road, you have a responsibility not to put obstacles in the road, including your own body. Since you ask, yes, crashes are sometimes caused by drivers being propelled into the path of oncoming traffic.

  2. Squander Two says:

    Some insurance companies have recently announced that they’ll offer reduced premiums to people who agree to install the devices, which is a boon for young men. Have the recorder in your car and they’ll give you affordable insurance; refuse, and it’s business as usual. I would have leapt at that if it had been available ten years ago, because I was never a boy racer.

    That looks like a brilliant solution to me, so why not leave it to the market? Forcing everyone to get these actually makes them less valuable than if they’re optional, because it means losing the extremely useful knowledge of who chooses to have the device and who doesn’t.

  3. richie says:

    How about making driving tests harder, so stupid bastard boy racers can’t possibly pass. Either make the theory harder (it’s a piece of piss, even with hazard perception)or make the practical test cover all roads and at all times. A 4 part practical test. Morning rush hour, afternoon behind the pensioners, evening rush hour and night driving along with taxis.

    I never sat my test until i was 22. I would say i’m a better driver for it. I never went through the boy racer bammed up shit car stage. I have a clean licence since passing 4 years ago. Never had an accident. All my mates who were 17 and passed 1st time all got points and involved in several bumps within the 1st 18 months.

    It’s not black boxes that will cut crashes it’s responsible driving and decent road surfaces that will.

  4. Gary says:

    > And these black boxes would be very handy when the police change their story because the person who caused the crash is the daughter of a policeman, as recently happened to a friend of mine, thoroughly screwing him.

    I’d suggest that that’s hardly common, though ;-)

    > A seatbelt makes the difference between knocking yourself unconscious…

    Yeah, but surely if you hit something with enough force to knock yourself out, the accident has already happened? Certainly in the rather nasty near-miss I had a few years ago (tyre blew out on a corner, car bounced all over the shop) while the seatbelt stopped me going out of the window, there was absolutely sod-all I could do to control the car after the first impact.

    > That looks like a brilliant solution to me, so why not leave it to the market?

    Maybe, yeah. It’d certainly help reduce the problem of uninsured boy racers (although whether it’d do anything about the problem of boy racers who think they’re insured but aren’t, because they’ve made huge mods to their car and didn’t tell the insurer, is doubtful).

  5. Squander Two says:

    > surely if you hit something with enough force to knock yourself out, the accident has already happened?

    Sure, sometimes it’s all over, but sometimes it’s continuing. What if your car’s still drivable but has been spun into the wrong lane, and you’re near a corner? You have a responsibility to get it out of the way before someone hits you. My point is that the it’s-up-to-me-what-I-do-with-my-life argument that we so often hear from Libertarians and Tories regarding seatbelts is unrealistically oversimplified. As far as I’m concerned, anyone throwing a ton of metal around other people has a responsibility to do all they can to remain in control of it.

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