from the good-intentions... dept
There is no doubt that many folks trying to come up with ways to reduce impaired driving and making the roads safer have the best of intentions. And yet, hidden within those intentions can linger some pretty dangerous consequences. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the giant infrastructure bill (that will apparently be negotiated forever) includes a mandate that automakers would eventually need to build in technology that monitors whether or not drivers are impaired. It’s buried deep in the bill (see page 1066), but the key bit is:
to ensure the prevention of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities, advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology must be standard equipment in all new passenger motor vehicles
The details note that the new technology should “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.” This isn’t the kind of keylock breathalyzer test things that some people have been required to install to operate a car. This is “passive” monitoring. That means sensors and cameras. And, as Julian Sanchez highlights, that raises a ton of surveillance and privacy concerns:
This amounts to mandating a sophisticated set of sensors be installed in a space where many Americans spend huge amounts of time. (And not just commuting?many people live in vehicles, whether out of choice or necessity, at least part of the time.) A narrowly-tailored sensor that only detects blood alcohol content, if designed to immediately discard any readings below the legal threshold, might not sound worryingly invasive. But the mandate extends to monitoring for other forms of “impairment,” which can require more intrusive types of sensors. One such system being developed by Nissan includes a “camera atop the instrument cluster” which “looks for facial cues signaling the driver is inebriated” while “the vehicle itself looks for driving patterns suggesting an impaired driver.” In other words, one form this mandatory technology is likely to take involves pre-installed video surveillance with facial recognition capabilities. (Law enforcement, no doubt, will eagerly think of many other applications for a ubiquitous system of cameras installed in private spaces?cameras which, by design, the vehicle owner will necessarily be unable to deactivate.)
It’s possible that there are versions of anti?impaired driving technology that could address these practical and privacy concerns. But that only underscores how little sense it makes for Congress to delegate authority for a regulatory mandate at a point when the technology being mandated remains largely hypothetical. Even in the absence of a mandate, there’s likely to be some market for these technologies: Some drivers would embrace as a safety feature a system that warns them if they’ve imbibed more than they realize, or are starting to swerve on the road. They’d doubtless also be popular in contexts where the owner of a vehicle is entrusting it to another driver: Rental cars, corporate cars, commercial cab or trucking fleets. This is not, in other words, technology that will go undeveloped and untested unless it is made universally mandatory.
That makes it seem wildly premature to empower an executive branch official to mandate what is, essentially, surveillance technology in all automobiles when the precise form of the technology remains uncertain, and it’s impossible to concretely debate the merits of specific systems. This sort of delegation lets legislators take credit for Doing Something to promote automotive safety and reduce the unacceptable annual death toll that results from drunk and impaired driving, without having to defend or be held accountable for any of the details of what Something entails. The bill doesn’t, after all, say “we’re requiring a camera that you can’t shut off be installed in everyone’s automobile”?that’s just one possible way to “passively monitor the performance of a driver.” They can reap the accolades now, and insist “that’s not what we intended” if the result is a mandatory surveillance network, or cars that stop working because you’ve used too much hand sanitizer or a pinhole aperture in the dash got blocked.
But, let’s take this even further. Sanchez notes in a parenthetical aside that law enforcement will come up with “many other applications” of this technology, but that deserves to be called out, because knowing what we know about how law enforcement embraces and “extends” every bit of surveillance technology they can get their hands on, this isn’t some pie in the sky hypothetical. We all know exactly how this will play out.
Police are going to demand access to the facial recognition and other data collected by these systems, and they’ll claim they need to have access to it for “public safety” reasons. Others are also likely to seek access to it as well. It’s going to be an insurance goldmine.
And that’s leaving aside the question of whether or not the technology will even work. The “passive” nature of it raises questions about how the system will know whether it’s the driver or passengers who may be impaired. The potential to use facial recognition may raise questions about people who have facial tics or other features that the system might deem to be a sign of impairment. And, as Sanchez also notes, there’s simply no clear reason why this technology needs to be government mandated and standard in every new vehicle.
Yes, preventing impaired driving is a worthy goal. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of installing massive new surveillance infrastructure in every new car.