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Your Car Will Tell On You

You're probably reeling from the massive erosion of privacy now under way. Companies are making your personal data available over the Internet and are monitoring your purchases in stores. We already have a national job registry; a national ID card and a national health care identifier are in the works. Not only do government computers monitor your banking transactions to watch for unreported income and illicit activity, but new regulations would have banks monitor your accounts and inform the feds of any “unusual” activities. But there's one area left that so far has remained relatively private: driving your car where you wish - nosy cops aside. That's about to change.

A number of proposals raise the possibility that bureaucrats could monitor where you go in your car, not to mention how you get there. The excuses are already there. First and foremost is reducing the pollution motor vehicles supposedly cause. Second is easing traffic jams. Other reasons include catching car thieves or kidnappers and detecting accidents to be able to send help. No one has specifically mentioned how tracking your movements benefit “the children” yet, but you know that's coming.

It's time to barbecue a few sacred cows. Today's cars are essentially clean compared to the pollution belchers of the early 60s . The same is true for light trucks, including sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). The three primary pollutants cars emit are unburned hydrocarbons (HC), which are what you get when gas doesn't burn completely and the dreck escapes out the tailpipe; carbon monoxide (CO), the famous closed garage killer; and oxides of nitrogen (NOx), a component of smog. All these result from engines not running as efficiently as they should. A clean engine should produce only water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2), also known as plant food.

Some pollution control was necessary. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency's own figures, 1960s cars without pollution controls belched out 8.7 grams per mile (g/mi ) of HC, 87.0 g/mi of CO, and 3.5 g/mi of NOx. By 1982, the allowable standards in g/mi were 0.41 of HC, 3.4 of CO, and 1.0 of NOx. (California's standards have historically been slightly different from these 49-state standards. ) Instead of nearly 100 g/mi of pollution, a car could emit less than 5. That's 95% purity. For 1994, the allowable standards dropped to 0.25 g/mi of HC and 0.4 g/mi of NOx, making the purity level 96%.

Today's electronic controls generally do much better than that. In 1996, Chrysler tested a Dodge Intrepid with 85,000 miles on its pollution control system to see how much pollution it produced at a steady 55 mph, 65 mph, and 75 mph. At 55 mph the car emitted only 0.004 g/mi of HC, CO, and NOx together - 99.996% purity. Even at 75 mph the sum was only 0.033 g/mi, less than 2% of what the feds allow and representing 99.96% purity. There are roughly twice as many vehicles on America's roads now as there were thirty years ago, but they're putting out a tiny fraction of the pollution. If some areas still have problems with pollution, something else is causing it - not motor vehicles. Maybe it 's bureaucratic flatulence.

And by the way, spare me the BS about the carbon dioxide (CO2) a cleaned-up car emits and the connection to “global warming.” The nuttier environmentalists began spouting this bunk in the mid-80s when it became clear that new cars had been made essentially clean. They had previously complained that cars caused smog. These people don't want clean cars: They want no cars. And global warming is a hoax anyway.

Of course, all this may be hard to believe when you're tied up in a traffic jam idling your engine with thousands of other cars. But let's face it: If people didn't want or need to drive, they'd use other ways of getting around. Buses, trains, and subways are typically crime-ridden and caked with stench and filth, not to mention noisy, uncomfortable, inconvenient, late, and loaded with strangers. Only if driving is too much of a hassle do people use mass transit. Road congestion may be a problem, but most people are willing to put up with it for the privacy and comfort of their own vehicle. It's a tradeoff, and the market has spoken. Traffic jams are not a real problem for most people, even those stuck in them. If they were, those people would do something else. They don't. Despite congestion, we eventually get where we're going, jobs get done, and stuff gets bought. So why does the government care?

Now let's look at the technologies in the works to “solve” the pollution, congestion, and other “problems” cars “cause.” One is road pricing, which has been used in Singapore and some European cities and is being introduced in California, New York, and New Jersey. To enter a city or use a certain highway, you pay a toll. The toll is usually higher at certain times of the day - for example, morning rush hour. Typically, the car carries an electronic tag that a roadside transponder detects in passing. The driver is either billed or a prepaid account is debited; people on the road without this tag get mailed toll bills, sometimes with fines added, after road cameras record their license plate numbers. But remember, your taxes already paid for most existing roads, and the ones that traditionally have had tolls have generally been paid for several times over. There's another agenda here.

Another experimental technology involves controlling cars remotely. Once you enter the highway in a vehicle with the proper equipment, computers by the road would take over the driving until you reach where you're going. Let's face it: The concept of vehicles traveling at high speed not under the direct control of the driver inside is scary. As automotive journalist Brock Yates has pointed out, what happens when debris hits the road or a mechanical malfunction occurs or hackers break into the control computers? Can you say “thousand-car pileup”? Bet you can.

But leave that alone. Let's concentrate on what road pricing and remote control have in common: Someone else will monitor where you go. Yates noted in his June 1998 Car and Driver column that the new E-ZPass electronic road pricing system on the New York State Thruway and New Jersey's Garden State Parkway could easily be used to track the speed and location of its users. In fact, TRANSCOM, the administrator of E-ZPass, has installed antennas to do just that. One day you could get a ticket in the mail for speeding because the E-ZPass system figured your average speed for your trip to be above the speed limit. Of course, TRANSCOM denied it would do this. So you live in the boonies? You don't enter big cities and don't plan to use automated highways? That's okay, they've got plans for you anyway. Your new car will tell on you all by itself.

To meet those stringent pollution standards and get the best fuel economy possible, today's cars contain strict electronic engine controls. Starting with the 1996 model year, the feds required motor vehicle manufacturers to use a common standard called “second-generation onboard diagnostics” or OBDII. The engine, transmission, fuel, exhaust, and other systems are riddled with sensors - typically more than 100. OBD II can detect everything from which cylinder is misfiring to a gas cap left off. A “Check Engine” light on the dashboard tells the driver something is wrong. A mechanic with diagnostic equipment can get a trouble code from the engine computer detailing the problem and even under what conditions it occurs.

OBD II knows how fast you go, and the engine software in most new cars is programmed to cut off the fuel to the engine once you reach a certain speed, typically related to the speed rating of the tires the vehicle comes with. Engine software that monitors road speed is nothing new, by the way. By the mid 1980s new Cadillacs recorded how often the car exceeded 80 mph, and the dealer 's service department could access this information.

Right now there is no way to access OBD II information from a moving car on the road. Proposals have been made to equip cars with black boxes like those in airplanes, to record the last few minutes' operation before an accident. But in 1996 and 1997 Ford experimented with data-collection modules that were left in some new vehicles for a year with the owners' permission. These used cell phone technology with satellite input to allow the company to collect data without physical contact. The idea was to see just how different drivers in different areas of the world used and drove their cars so that Ford could change its vehicles as needed for various markets. A technician with the program said that the system could also collect other data such as seat belt usage, but the automaker was wary of doing so for privacy's sake. Not so the feds.

And that brings us to the proposed OBD III standards. When they would go into effect for new cars isn't clear, but it would probably be around 2005. As Jennifer and Brock Fraser described in the October 1998 issue of Hot Rod, OBD III as proposed would require your new vehicle to “have communications capabilities enabling information to be passed from the vehicle to remote stations” in real time at random, perhaps without your knowledge . If the system sensors detect a problem, not only would the “Check Engine” light come on, the associated data would also be received by “roadside receivers or satellites that are randomly monitoring your vehicle” if you don't fix it. Next thing you know, the cops or the feds are pulling you over, paying you a visit, or mailing you a summons. But such monitoring, especially by satellite, would also tell where you are and how fast you're going. Those satellites could monitor your movement twenty four hours a day - and detect if you were wearing your seat belt.

Even worse, the proposal could also include a requirement that a vehicle with OBD III be able to receive information. Imagine the cops shutting your engine down by remote command because they detected your “Check Engine” fault, because you were going too fast, or simply because of the owner 's personal data. After all, minorities get targeted now in some areas for random police stops. Picture some redneck cop shutting off your engine to harass you. Yates raises the possibility that some bureaucrat could send the signal to shut your car down, using the dreaded excuses of pollution or congestion. Your car could be set to run only on Tuesdays and Thursdays or only on days when pollution indexes are in a certain range or only below a certain politically correct speed. Not only would they know where you are, they would control your driving and to add insult to injury, they could tax you based on your usage. Hey, who needs road pricing once we have this? And as Yates puts it, “Deprogram it unlawfully, and Big Brother would instantly be notified.”

OBD III is just another example of the horrifying potential of government power. We decided years ago to allow federal bureaucrats this kind of power because we were incapable of accepting responsibility for ourselves. We have traded freedom for security, and as a great man once remarked, those who will trade the former for the latter deserve neither. Yates warns, “Beware of the future when the car might become a symbol not of freedom but of civil bondage.” What will you say when they take your privacy on the road away?

Copyright 2000 Edwin Krampitz, Jr.

This article was republished from http://www.loompanics.com/Articles/YourCar.html as it is very important to the discussion even though it is a little dated.


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