Cars will be smart, but will we want them?

  • Doug Parry / All Things Media
  • Wednesday, June 20, 2001 9:00pm
  • Local News

My car outsmarted me last week.

I arrived at work in the afternoon on one of those gray June days and like a complete idiot, left the lights on. Once I got a jump and got on the road again, my car stereo started talking to me.

It wasn’t speaking to me like KITT, the car in that totally awesome ’80s TV show “Knight Rider,” starring David Hasselhoff. It was speaking to me through the digital display on the stereo, and it knew only one word: “Code.”

“Code?” I asked the stereo. “I don’t have a code.” I dug the owner’s manual out of the glove compartment, but there was no code to be found there. I thought maybe it was a code I made up when I bought the car new in 1995, so I punched in a few familiar numbers: my ATM code, then my wife’s birthday. Still, the stereo kept saying “code” and emitting no sound. No news radio, no classic rock. Nada.

I called the dealer and the guy in the service department said he’d be happy to retrieve my code, but first he’d have to dig out my radio and get its serial number, which would cost me $59.

It occurred to me that my car is not smart enough to beep and tell me that I’ve left my lights on, but it’s just smart enough to make a few extra dollars for the dealer whenever someone has to recharge a battery.

As a crime-fighting hero, KITT probably wouldn’t like what that car and dealer were conspiring to do. KITT always used technology for good, never for evil. For the record, I pulled out the stereo and got the serial number myself. No more painful silent rides in the car for me.

But if my current car is smarter than I am, how am I going to handle the next generation of cars that everyone says is coming? In-car TVs and built-in wireless devices are already here. In a few more years, many of us will be equipped with a Global Positioning System, or GPS, which is supposed to keep us from getting lost out on the road.

While these “smart cars” help us take the right exit off the freeway, their technology can be exploited in more devious ways, too.

Consider the case of James Turner of New Haven, N.H. Turner is suing a rental car company after it charged him $450 for allegedly speeding on his way to Virginia in a rented minivan.

Turner never was ticketed by police, so how did the rental car company know he was speeding? It was equipped with a GPS that clocked him at over 90 mph. The fact that drivers could be fined for driving above the posted speed limit was in the fine print of his rental car contract.

In addition to providing maps to drivers, the positioning devices allow the rental agency to track the location and speed of its cars. The rental agency can set an internal speed “limit” on the car. If you go over the limit, an agent can even turn off the car by remote control.

It’s a technology that is being used by some commercial truck fleets to keep an eye on drivers, apparently to add an extra layer of indignity to an already hard job.

I’m not advocating speeding, but there’s something liberating about having the power to go 100 mph under your foot. If the GPS technology has the ability to take that freedom away, I’m not sure I want it.

I don’t think KITT would have liked this either. In the TV show, KITT ran around trying to save people’s lives while making smart-ass comments. Meanwhile, his nemesis KARR had only one goal: its own survival at all costs. The rental car agency reminds me of KARR. It’s not trying to keep you safe by slowing you down. It’s trying to keep you from putting too much wear and tear on its precious rental car.

Do we really need cars that are smarter than we are? Personally, I want a car that’s even dumber than an ’80s fantasy TV show.

At least then the radio would always work.

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