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Mandated 'smart' tech could put cars in charge of their drivers

Tue, 02/25/2014 - 6:53am
Stephanie Carmichael, Contributor

A new federal mandate could ensure that you’re not the only driver in control of the wheel.

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication is a big deal. Basically, it enables cars to “talk” to each other and exchange data such as speed and location. That way, if someone were to pull a dangerous maneuver, the cars would “know” and could respond to avoid a collision even before their drivers would think to. Automakers are eager to roll out systems like blind-spot detection and lane-keeping assistance that use high-tech cameras, global positioning satellite receivers, and other sensors. In a few years, this technology could be a part of every new car and every new light truck to hit the roadway. You might not have a say about it.

The federal government announced this month that it’s taking steps to make V2V tech a requirement in most new vehicles (which would also increase their cost). It could prevent upward of 30,000 unnecessary deaths a year, but does that come at the cost of your own privacy?

The more the Internet of Things grows — predicted to surpass 26 billion installed units by 2020 — the more information that’s floating around in the open and more of us are exposed to third parties and hackers. V2V tech would mean our every action while manning a car could be broadcast to other drivers and to companies, but is the extra safety worth compiling a potentially public collection of data on ourselves and our habits? A lot of people would pay for that information. And will this new safety measure be effective in preventing thousands of deaths a year, or will it be an unfulfilled promise?

I think about autonomous, self-driving cars and the inevitable expansion into vehicle-to-bicyclist and vehicle-to-pedestrian communication, and then I think where that all begins with V2V. These minor additions could become total takeovers later. We’re leaving our safety — when to apply the brakes, when to turn or swerve — up to the accuracy and intelligence of machines, which are by no means foolproof. What if the car responds in a way that actually facilitates an accident and gets the driver and his passengers or family killed? Humans make errors in judgment all the time, but are we safer with technology at the helm, ready to rip away our sense of control at any moment?

Even a tiny percent of fail rates could be scary. And there’s no telling what drivers could be thinking that V2V cars won’t know to account for. Many, many variables are at work on the roads.

Another concern is whether our own desire to revive the American automotive industry — to maintain our position as world leaders in the most ways possible — could compromise our attention to vehicle safety. "By helping drivers avoid crashes, this technology will play a key role in improving the way people get where they need to go while ensuring that the U.S. remains the leader in the global automotive industry,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in Washington, D.C.

But should that be our focus? Are our priorities straight? V2V tech is a major interest for Silicon Valley, and its wide-scale implementation could rope in millions of new customers for big tech companies since it relies on wireless infrastructure.

One thing is clear: With technology moving as fast as it is, seat belts and air bags are primitive forms of protection. We have the power to make safety better. But we have to think prudently about how we employ that power.

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