OnStar or Ominous?
General Motors has announced that the next generation of the OnStar system, due in some models as early as 2009, will go beyond opening doors for you if you’ve locked the keys in the car – it will actually enable the OnStar operator to stop your car.
Billed as a way of catching car thieves, Chet Huber, OnStar’s president, said that OnStar operators would – upon receiving police notification that he has seen a car reported stolen – send a signal to the car that brings it slowly to a stop. "This technology will basically remove the control of the horsepower from the thief. Everything else in the vehicle works. The steering works. The brakes work," he said. Reportedly, the system also activates the vehicle’s emergency flashers.
Details apparently aren’t fully resolved, as the company hasn’t decided if it should give a verbal warning before slowing and stopping the car. Anticipated cost of the service is $200 per year, though the OnStar hopes that insurance companies will give a premium discount to partly offset the additional cost.
Thankfully, turning control of your car over to some police officer acting in concert with an OnStar operator is still an option. How, precisely, OnStar intends to verify that the caller requesting the stop is really a cop they don’t say. But that’s not what’s really ominous about this.
How, exactly, does OnStar intend to limit this to stopping stolen cars? Or, does it really intend to limit it to that? What about someone fleeing from the police? Or someone the police regard as driving recklessly. Or, just someone speeding on the Interstate, when it turns out the cop was going the opposite direction and can’t make a U-turn fast enough? It’s never the original idea that’s pernicious. It’s where it is taken that ends up creating unpleasant consequences.
Black boxes in GM cars and those of some other manufacturers have already been used in court against vehicle owners, some of whom didn’t even know the vehicle had one. Put in a number of GM vehicles at manufacture without any notice to the consumer, these nifty little devices record data much like a flight recorder. They catch the last few minutes of the car’s operation. In accident cases, they’ve been used in civil lawsuits to establish the vehicle was traveling at an excessive speed. They’ve bee used similarly in at least some criminal prosecutions. The owner may not know the black box is in his car, but the cops sure do.
The new OnStar idea is terrible. Essentially, they’re creating a system in which cops can disable your car, at their own will. Sure, they’ve got to go through the OnStar operator – for now. Sure, it’s optional – for now. But that’s only until some ambitious state legislator or federal Congress person gets the bright idea that they ought to pass a law mandating that all new cars be so equipped. After all, they’ll say, think how many live could be saved if police could only stop a car, instead of chasing it.
Granted, on the plus side of that, there would be elimination of all those inane cop reality chase shows on cable TV.
But the downside is much more serious, and quite ominous.
The government will not only be able to monitor where you go, they’ll actually be able, if not to control where you go, control whether and when you can go. Unpaid parking tickets? No need to boot the car – just send it a signal and disable it. The list is endless. The ability to drive is essential to routine life. The government already licenses whether you can do it. But this takes it much further. It allows the government the mechanism to physically control something that you own and that it is entirely legal for you to own.
That is not a happy prospect.
Of course, it is always said in these circumstances that we must assume the police will act in “good faith.” But, we know they don’t always – it is within the past decade that a federal court forced the New Jersey State Police to adopt very specific procedures documenting traffic stops after determining in a civil rights lawsuit that the state police were systematically targeting black drivers. That was not so long ago, and it wasn’t a matter of a few bad apples in the barrel.
Isn’t it amazing that this idea comes from the same company that used to advertise that “[i]t’s not just your car, it’s your freedom?”