Politicians have already cashed in on the infrastructure bill victory, but Americans will eventually suffer the consequences of today’s virtue-signaling. In a few short years, the government may be an omnipresent passenger in every new car.
The 2,000-page infrastructure bill, signed into law a few weeks ago, includes a mandate that newly manufactured cars keep a digital eye on their drivers — and figure out whether or not they’re in any condition to drive. This certainly sounds well-intentioned, but as lamentable as drunk-driving deaths are, mandating technology that has yet to be invented raises serious practical and privacy concerns.
Section 24220 of the law, titled Advanced Impaired Driving Technology, directs the secretary of transportation to issue a rule within three years requiring advanced impaired driving technology in all new vehicles, although the rule may be delayed if the technology is not ready for implementation. Automakers have up to three years after the rule is issued to comply.
Automakers may become unwilling accomplices to massive surveillance, but chances are, they will be as eager as Amazon was to give law enforcement easy access to video footage.
Despite potentially affecting all vehicles as soon as 2026, the text of the law is surprisingly vague. All we know is that it would require that the technology “passively and accurately detect” blood alcohol concentration greater than allowable limits or, more concerning, “passively monitor the performance of a driver” to determine impairment. If impairment is detected, the technology must “prevent or limit” the operation of the vehicle. Though drunk driving is one obvious meaning of the law, impairment encompasses a broad range of behaviors: for example, being overly drowsy, intoxicated by marijuana or other substances, being distracted, eating, or using a cell phone. Obviously, no one should be driving in any of these states. The question is, what does a technology capable of preventing this look like?
Because of the ambiguity of the law’s language, and pending guidance from the secretary of transportation, it seems likely that automakers would develop technologies such as air alcohol odor sensors, skin sensors on the gear shift, and cameras trained on the driver’s head and eyes to meet the requirement. Automakers such as GM and Nissan are already experimenting with these methods, and Volvo already implements cameras and sensors to detect intoxication, although the company is currently unable to shut down the vehicle. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) identified 241 possible technologies to combat drunk driving, any of which could be mandated.
There are serious practical questions that automakers will have to consider in implementing these technologies, although most will no doubt be solved for typical use cases. For example, Nissan’s concept car using air alcohol sensors was tripped by inebriated passengers. If the vehicle uses a camera system, will your passengers be recorded as well? If the system fails, will it allow the driver to drive, making disablement of the sensors a trivial problem, or will it shut down the car, stranding the driver and passengers with a bricked vehicle? These design questions, and more, will plague automakers, which will only have three years to make the technology marketable, effective, and in compliance with DOT rules.
Privacy and security concerns are more alarming, as the kinds of technology being considered will necessarily have to collect data. Who owns that data: the driver or the automaker? Another concern is how the data will be stored. Will the technology create permanent logs, available to enterprising hackers and law enforcement?
This concern is especially relevant to cameras, which grant permanent and continuous access to a deeply personal space — the inside of your vehicle. Automakers may become unwilling accomplices to massive surveillance, but chances are, they will be as eager as Amazon was to give law enforcement easy access to video footage from Ring doorbell cameras. One doesn’t need a vivid imagination to realize that law enforcement would love a videotape of every move a driver makes. Nor is it implausible that the technology used to shut down the car could be used by hackers or law enforcement in addition to its intended purposes.
While some car buyers might appreciate a helpful nudge to sleep it off, most consumers won’t want a car that decides when it can be driven. The government doesn’t need to override consumer preferences in order to develop anti-impairment technology, so why force it?
The answer is clear: At its best, the vague language of the mandate allows politicians to take credit for doing something now and let the secretary of transportation take the heat in three years. At its worst, it means you’ve just let the government call shotgun. Let’s hope that it doesn’t ever come to that.
Sarah Montalbano is the Research Associate at Alaska Policy Forum and a contributor to Young Voices. Her writing can be found in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and Townhall.