Technology drives a hard bargain between motorists and the law

Rupert Goodwins: If you can't break the law you can't suffer the consequences, but it depends on who calls the shots
Written by Rupert Goodwins on

Last month, I wrote about the great American robot road race. Organised by the military, I opined, it missed the point -- rather than have cars that look after themselves, we need cars that look after us. One reader wrote in to say, rather tartly, that the biggest problem in driving isn't lack of intelligence in the motors but in the legal system, which seemed to him to be bent on making villains of us all.

It's long been true that the easiest way to become a criminal is to own a car. Mess up on insurance, tax, mechanical inspections, tyres, even the level of water in your windscreen washer, and you can come a cropper. Drive too fast or too slow, park in the wrong place at the wrong time, misread a traffic sign, and state-sanctioned misery will be yours. It gets worse: to this near-endless litany of sin, we can look forward to mobile phone operation being banned. Expect the driving test to include a Trappist-like vow of silence in the near future. I suppose it goes with the vows of poverty and obedience that already accompany the keys with any car purchase.

To battle our sinful nature, the state has enlisted an army of enforcing robots. If the speed cameras don't get you, the black box -- ostensibly included in your car to monitor air bag deployment -- will dib you in. A thousand automatic eyes relay your number plate to central computers wherever you go. Wireless data links to the boys in blue reveal your lack of insurance or roadworthiness certificate. Vans with emission testers delicately sniff your exhaust fumes for non-compliance, and there are even experiments with laser spectrometers that can scent booze fumes inside the car as you whiz past.

I don't own a car. I smile at traffic wardens, enjoy a complex relationship with London's public transport system, have three cab company numbers in my mobile and have even been known to walk. I don't understand why people complain about speed cameras: everyone knows, says the road lobby, that they're really there to raise cash. If that were true, then all people have to do is not speed for a couple of months and watch the flow of fines dry up. Nonetheless, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who find car ownership increasingly unpleasant. Cars define our lives, and for most people are not an optional extra. Technology is supposed to make things better, not surround us in a thicket of misdemeanours while ensuring we can't escape.

So why not make cars that can't break the law? We already have that technology. If roads were embedded with electronically readable speed limits, the car could simply refuse to go faster. More subtly, drivers could put their foot down but be automatically reported with explanations sought after the event. We can cheaply record everything that happens to a car, including 360-degree video of the world outside: do what thou will but answer for it is a potent behavioural modifier. Similarly, radio frequency sniffers can cut off mobile phone naughtiness in a millisecond, alcohol and drug detectors built into the ignition key can disable a car just as easily as the substances themselves disable the driver, and smart streets can simply forbid the engine to stop if no parking is permitted.

It's nearly unthinkable. The car is an icon of liberty and personal power -- just look at the adverts. Every driver in the world has fond memories of that first time alone behind the wheel, free at last to visit friends, the next town, the next country. If we react so badly to every new rule that nibbles away at our private kingdom behind the wheel, why would we even contemplate a wholesale abdication of responsibility? At the same time, we expect ever less risk and find avoidable harm less tolerable by the day -- especially when that harm comes from others.

In the end, we'll have to reach a new compromise, much as we have with flying. We'd be horrified if pilots exercised a tenth the latitude we grant ourselves on the road, and they're infinitely better trained in the art of not killing themselves and others. There are plenty of benefits: the car that watches everything is more than capable of deterring vandalism and theft, and if you can't break the law you can't lose your licence under a hailstorm of points. Having this debate will also teach us what to watch in the wider world as technology changes the ground rules by which we live. If we can't trust the lawmakers or our fellows, we may have to build machines that do the job.


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