'Big Brother' - the price of self-driving cars
Privacy concerns forbid in-car beer, movies, snoozing
Privacy campaigners have called in the national press for a debate over possible future car technologies being considered by the European Union.
The Guardian "can reveal" today that the UK government "are the main backers" of the EU's Cooperative Vehicle-Infrastructure Systems (CVIS), details of which "will be unveiled this year".
Under the plans, every vehicle would be fitted with a data radio which would emit a regular "heartbeat" of information into the CVIS network. This would permit anyone with official access to the network to locate and track any moving vehicle in real time. Brussels officials involved in the project think that such equipment could be fitted to new vehicles as soon as 2013, and that European nations might choose to make it compulsory.
Actually, quite a lot of details regarding CVIS have been revealed already, here. And the UK's Department for Transport (DfT) doesn't keep its interest secret either. CVIS would be very useful for the DfT's "managed motorway" toll-lane and speed-enforcement plans, which it thinks will be essential to manage coming increases in traffic while largely doing without major new roadbuilding. So yes, it's quite reasonable to say that the UK is "one of the main backers" of the idea.
The Guardian has been given unpublished documents detailing the proposed uses for the system. They confirm that it could have profound implications for privacy, enabling cars to be tracked to within a metre - more accurate than current satellite navigation technologies.
The European commission has asked governments to reserve radio frequency on the 5.9 Gigahertz band, essentially setting aside a universal frequency on which CVIS technology will work.
Blimey - secret documents!
Well, not so much. The documents were given to the Graun by an unnamed podcast interviewee. He was given them by the sinister Brussels CVIS people themselves, so that people could debate the idea and discuss it. They also offer exhaustively complete details on the system for download, here, and have even gone so far as to hold a developer contest for their proposed "open" network architecture - details and SDK here.
The idea of the CVIS tech would be to offer direct vehicle-to-vehicle comms within 500m, and connection to the wider network via nodes in motorway gantries, cell towers, road signs, perhaps even private sites like garages or service areas.
If a vehicle or vehicles ahead of you was braking aggressively, you would be warned straight away - no need for CCTV operators to notice a tailback forming and intitiate road-sign warnings. If an emergency vehicle - or indeed anyone - was about to cross an intersection ahead of you against the lights, you'd be warned. The network would have a complete and accurate map of vehicles on the road, so that car navigation systems would be able to plot their way around the traffic with confidence.
That's all fine - but where the hell is my self-driving car?
And it's worth noting that the only real difficulty in building cars able to drive themselves is that of letting the autodrive system know about other vehicles in a way it can understand. The ability of the human brain to use 2D video for this requires far too much processing power to be viable here: so an alternative such as laser radar mapping droidvision or CVIS is required. Apart from that missing capability, optionally self-driving cars - and indeed 600-tonne godzilla lorries - have already been built.
CVIS, in other words, would be a significant step towards a working robo-chauffeur car which would drive itself and let the user enjoy a beer, a read or a restful nap - or do some work - as it did so.
That would take a while, of course, and would also - as the CVIS people freely admit - require that the kit be universal and compulsory. Nobody is planning to introduce any such rules in the near future, though the DfT are very keen to get stuck in on the congestion-busting toll lane and adjustable speed limit parts of their "managed motorway" plans. The vulnerability of existing numberplate-scan systems to fraud and spoofing is well known - though it's not clear that CVIS would be that much harder to beat.
The privacy implications of the system are clear, of course. Police or other authorities with access would be able to look up details of any journey taken by any vehicle, and track them in real time too - even better than they already can using the TfL enforcement numberplate cams, and the many others on the UK highways.
Equally clear is that universal CVIS would offer useful safety and convenience benefits right off, and potentially move forward one day into the realm of auto-chauffeur cars: which will never be feasible without some such infrastructure, but would be a lot safer and offer much better point-to-point times than human drivers can, if built.
Ultimately then, there's a price to be paid in terms of road deaths, traffic jams and economic strangulation for privacy above a certain level. The question is whether that price is worth paying - it might not be all that big. (Always remembering that if you really wanted to keep a journey off the books you could still take a minicab and pay in cash, use public transport and wear a hoodie to beat the CCTV face trackers - which don't work anyway - hitchhike, etc etc.)
Like all technology since stone tools, CVIS can be used for good or bad - or not used at all if that's what people want.
So far, so ordinary. Just another tech debate.
What's a mild puzzler here is how the Brussels chaps handing out some documents in an attempt to have an open discussion got turned into the headline "Big Brother is watching: surveillance box to track drivers is backed". In fact it's fairly hard to see how it even made the national news.
Looks as though it's not just the government who can play naughty games in an argument of this sort. ®