The Day Your Car Kidnaps YouS

Phillip K. Dick's The Game Players of Titan takes place in a near future where cars drive their passengers, recording the day's stops and visits. At the end of they day, the cars transmit everything they know about their drivers' habits over to the police.

Google's fleet of self-driving Toyota Priuses have succeed in driving a blind man to Taco Bell, gained clearance for use in Nevada, and logged nearly 200,000 road miles. In the next decade, drivers will find themselves behind the wheels of cars driven by computers. Long range commutes would instantly become easier and more enjoyable — think of all the things you could read! But what will happen to the data collected about your commute, and everywhere else you go? Could this data be used against you?

The connected car

A wireless communication system would be necessary to connect the fleets of automated cars traveling the highways and side-streets, coordinating distances between vehicles, speeds, and turns. A widespread connected car-to-car communication and navigation system is a cheaper alternative to the current $300,000 price tag necessary for equipment to transform a Toyota Prius into one of Google's autonomous cars that travel alongside erratic, human-driven vehicles.

Such a system transforms highways into enormous mass transit systems, but with individuals traveling in separate cars instead of separate seats on a subway train. These systems would likely require a subscription to obtain the service, and honestly, it would probably take a generation or two before the streets are flooded with automated cars and able to perform at peak efficiency.

The first generation of consumer available automated cars will need to be able to perform without a widespread car-to-car communication system, instead relying upon GPS data and other sensors to deliver information that allows the car to make traffic decisions. Google's autonomous vehicle uses GPS and detailed map information along with a 64-beam laser to generate a 3D image of the environment. The automated vehicles are not very aggressive, following traffic rules to the letter, often to the detriment of the commute. Self-driving cars are not perfect, as noted by a 2011 crash of one of Google's autonomous vehicles into a fellow Prius in a five car collision.

The Day Your Car Kidnaps You

Would your car betray you?

The moment the car you drive (or that drives you) connects to a wireless data system and begins altering its decisions, a bevy of questions arise.

Even if the automated portion of the car is disengaged while you manually drive down the interstate, will the car be able to limit your maximum speed? Would it communicate with local authorities should you commit a traffic violation? Both are possible, with automatic ticketing systems exiting in many cities to safeguard intersection.

Going one step further, what would stop an automated car from assuming control should a law officer decide to pull you over? Even if you are in control, it is quite plausible a set of instructions kick in after you are flagged for a violation, decreasing your speed and selecting the place you pull over and receive a stern lecture (and fine) from a police officer.

Even worse - let's say you are unlucky enough to have an existing warrant out for your arrest and you enter your car. With sufficient biometrics, it would be easy to identify criminals, lock the doors, and drive them directly to a local precinct. A kidnapping is an extreme example, yes, but one within the realm of possibility due to precedents for data usage. Even without a wireless car-to-car communication system in place, it is possible that authorities and federal organizations would have a limited amount of control over the movement of your vehicle.

Trading convenience for tracking

This future is believable - the outcome will depend on the extent an automated car is able to control the driver's actions or override them.

Data used to coordinate car movements will likely be transferred freely. Cell phones are used to track criminals, call records are maintained, and internet service providers monitor the files you download. A precedent is set for use of cell phone records as evidence in court - why would information about the places you visit, violations, and other activities conducted in an automated car, especially if transmitted on a pay for use service, be held to a different standard?

Fully automated driving would take several generations to gain acceptance, thanks to the number of older model cars already on the road, as well as individuals who enjoy the act of driving itself. I would gladly give over the wheel to a computer and communication system to take a nap or read a book during a long commute. Thanks to added convenience and efficiency, the days of your car spying on you are only a few years away.

Top image courtesy of IEEE Spectrum; the video of an automated vehicle navigating a highway is courtesy of Scobleizer/YouTube; Prius image is Google's self-driving model on a track. Sources linked within the article.