For all the good it does, technology often fails us in big ways

Technology has improved our world in so many ways.   When they work, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings with audible cues for those with visual impairments are but one example of the many simple successes of societal automation.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

Technology has improved our world in so many ways.   When they work, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings with audible cues for those with visual impairments are but one example of the many simple successes of societal automation.  But attempts to underpin society with technology have failed too.

Earlier today, I was horrified to learn that the Feds have considered manadating the inclusion of Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking devices in our cars.  As I explain in that blog, I was even more horrified to learn about how the Feds have discussed how, if the devices fall out of touch with the GPS network, that our cars can automatically be disabled.  Not only does my own personal account with "state-controlled" vehicle-mounted wireless technology set the precedent for why such Big Brotheresque police-state like technology can never work, it's a sad example of how we as a people have completely failed to leverage  existing technology in such a way that makes society more efficient.   As a side note, another example of that failure is how thousands upon thousands of good samaritans offered space in their homes to victims of Katrina using Craigs' List and how most of those victims never saw those listings.  This is not only a failing of technology, but a failing of the technology community to rise to the occasion of what was really a national disaster.  I digress.

Around four years ago (an estimate), my wife and acquired two FastLane electronic toll transponders.  Such transponders are designed to ease the congestion at roadway toll booths by letting cars drive through them without stopping to drop a toll in a bucket or exchange monies with a human toll collector.  It's a wireless technology.  In some states in the northeastern US, the system is referred to as EZPass.  FastLane transponders work where EZPass transponders are taken and vice versa.   In Massachusetts where I live, if you have a transponder that's compatible with the FastLane system, then, as you approach the toll booth,  you pick one of the FastLane Only lanes and theoretically, things should work swimmingly as you drive through the toll plaza.  Unfortunately, sometimes they don't and the results can be frustrating as well as a waste of time and money (yours and the taxpayers).

In the FastLane system, each transponder is connected to an account which must be preloaded with enough funds to cover your driving habits on New England's tolled roadways.  For the sake of convenience, we have our transponders tied to a credit card.  When, by way of transponder usage, one of our preloaded accounts dips below a certain threshold, a transaction with our credit card is triggered to repopulate the account with more funds.  Although it's not enforced (it could easily be), when the transponders are purchased, they must also be assigned to a specific vehicle.  When my wife and I acquired our transponders, we had to provide the license plate number and other descriptive data such as the year, manufacturer, and model names of our cars.  

The "system" involves very little feedback to end-users.  When you attempt to drive through a FastLane-only lane tolls, a green light indicates that everything's fine: that your transponder has been detected and your account has been docked whatever the toll amount is.  In Massachusetts, at least at the toll booths I frequent, a yellow light indicates that your preloaded account is low on funds.  My wife and I ignore these warnings because we know our accounts are set up to automatically reload from our credit card.  The last bit of feedback we get is on our credit card statement.   Every month or so, we'll see a line item indicating that we've been charged to fund our FastLane accounts. 

The transponder itself is a small white brick.  It has no buttons or indicator lights.  Here's where the problem begins.  The only way to tell if the transponder is working is to try to go through a toll booth.  If you get a green or yellow light, no problem.   But there are no big signs or instructions telling you what to do if you get no light.  Is the transponder malfunctioning?  Is the toll booth malfuctioning?  Should I stay or should I go?  There's no way to figure this out.  Earlier this year, as I pulled into the FastLane-only lane on Massachusetts' famous Tobin Bridge (just outside of Boston), nothing happened. 

Fearful of getting a traffic ticket for some ridiculous amount of money, I stopped and waited.  I knew the blare of horn honking going on behind me (other FastLane holders have no patience for a stopped car in the FastLane, nor should they) would attract some attention.  Eventually, a toll booth guy walks up to my car and noticed me waving my transponder and says, "Oh, it must be dead. You still have to pay."  As  I pulled $3.00 out of my pocket, he hands me a piece of paper with instructions on how to get a new transponder.  As I a pull away though, the red light blinks and a buzzer goes off.  This usually indicates that someone just ran the toll.  I've seen this happen many times before, where the toll collector just waves you through despite the red light blinking and the buzzer going off.  Little did I know how this would trigger a process that no honest citizen should be forced to go through. 

I never gave that day another thought until one day, I got a $100 summons in the mail for running the toll booth.  It was signed by a Massachusetts state trooper.   There were no troopers in sight when I "ran" the toll so my guess is that when the red light blinked and the buzzer went off, a camera probably took a picture of the license plate on the back of my car.   The resulting photograph was probably examined by a trooper who then rather matter of factly wrote up a summons.  Apparently, the camera angle didn't include the toll booth guy with my $3.00 toll in his hand. 

The time wasted so far includes the time of the people I held up in the  FastLane lane, the time of the guy who had to walk up to my car, and the time of all the people involved (including the state trooper) in making sure the $100 summons made its way to my mailbox.  Some of that time translates into taxpayer money.  Now, even though I consider my time to be worth more than $100 per hour, exoneration from the charges is a matter of principle (and an opportunity to write about a complete but avoidable breakdown in technology).  The summons gave me the choice of admitting guilt and paying the fine by mail or going to court.  It would have been nice if there was a telephone or Web-based appeals process (opportunities for technology). But,  sadly there isn't.  To appeal the ticket, I would have to appear in court.  Processing my request for appeal involved more time and taxpayer money.  Especially since I was due to be in San Francisco on the original court date. 

Eventually, I showed up for my court appearance.  It took me an hour to get to the courthouse in Chelsea.  I had to cross the Tobin Bridge.  This time, I paid a toll collector and asked for a receipt.  I wished I asked the guy who took my $3.00 on that fateful day for a receipt.  But all he gave me was a piece of paper with the instructions on what to do about malfunctioning transponders.  Fortunately, I saved it and had it with me in hopes that I could prove I wasn't a lawbreaker and that I did the right thing that day.

After sitting around for about 30 minutes, my name was called and a bailiff ushered me into a courtroom that was the size of a large walk-in closet.  Packed against one side was the Judge's bench, the Judge, and a state trooper (but not the one that signed my summons).  The Judge read the charges to me and then asked the trooper for a copy of the citation.  The trooper said "The state has no citation to offer at this time."  The Judge looked at me and said "The charges are dismissed. You may go."   All that for nothing.  The trooper's time.  The bailiff's time.  The Judge's time.  My time.  I didn't even get a chance to defend myself. Even though I didn't have to, I wanted to.  I wanted the satisfaction of explaining to someone how the system is a complete failure -- practically designed to waste the state's resources and the precious time of its citizens.  Thankfully, I'm a salaried employee.  But what about the millions of people who would have had to take a day off from work to make such a wasteful court appearance?

So, why was this a failure and what lessons can be learned from this case study for anyone like the Feds whose thinking about tying the proper functioning of a car to a GPS device.   First, the idea that a malfunctioning device landed me in court is simply absurd.  My punishment (the $100 fine) was in essentially effect until proven otherwise.   I'm just now imagining how, when my GPS device malfunctions while on the way to the hospital for an emergency (or to work, a job interview, etc. where delays could have other profound ramifications), my car simply stops and to get it working again, I have to go to court and the burden is on me to prove that the device stopped working.  I see new meaning to the acronym F.O.R.D. (a joke among Chevy enthusiasts that means "found on road dead").  Can you imagine dead cars everywhere waiting to be reactivated?  

Another reason my FastLane experience was a complete failure of technology is that the database exists for  determining potential guilt or innocence.  The license plate was obviously visible enough to look up my address in one database and send me a summons.  Why not look me up in the other database -- the one of people who have FastLane transponders -- to see if maybe, just maybe, a FastLane transponder is assigned to my car.  Perhaps a "hit" would have triggered a different process.  Instead of issuing a summons, I would have been sent the same piece of paper that the aforementioned toll booth guy handed to me when the transponder originally malfunctioned.  It could have come with a small pre-addressed box and started by saying "Our records indicate that there may be a problem with your transponder.  This is your first and only warning.  Another toll violation will trigger an automatic summons.   To avoid a summons, please return your transponder in the box provided and we'll replace it.  Please use the toll collectors' lanes until you have the new transponder."  Or something like that. You get the picture.  Let's say the total cost of this process is $15 (could it be anymore?).  How does that compare to the amount of taxpayer money that's getting wasted chasing after honest drivers? 

At this point, some people are saying, "Hey David. Maybe you loaned your transponder to someone else.  Maybe you're trying to beat the system."  First, the "system's" records would reflect  the usage of the transponder by the person I presumably loaned it to.  If no such usage is indicated, then, the authorities really have no grounds to assume foul play.  Second, that's what warnings are for.  Assuming that the transponder is functioning and, for some reason, I didn't have it with me and I really did run the tolls, I get one warning.  After that, I get a summons.  Total cost to the state?  $3.00 (the toll that didn't get paid) and some postage required to send me the notice that was autogenerated by the system at a cost of about 1 cent.  

I'm not done yet.  What about the transponders?  How about some way of testing them? For example, a button that activates an indicator light.  Or, how about a big sign that stretches across the roadway about a mile ahead of the toll both that displays some indication (your license plate number, your transponder number, etc.) that your transponder is functioning? 

The bottom line is that it's not just the fallibilty of the technology that's the problem.  It's the assumption that people are guilty until proven innocent when the technology fails and the wasteful if not unconstitutional process that follows.  What's even worse is that the technology actually exists to mitigate that assumption and how no one is bothering to use it.

Do you have your own personal case study of how technology is failing us as a people? Please use our comments section below to share it with ZDNet's readers, or share it me at david.berlind@cnet.com

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