A little-known federal agency is planning a new monitoring program by which the government would track every car on the road by using onboard transceivers.
The agency, the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, is part of the Department of Transportation. According to an extensive report in the Charlotte, N.C., Creative Loafing, the agency doesn’t respond to public inquiries about its activity.
According to the report, cutting-edge tracking technology will be used by government transportation management centers to monitor every aspect of transportation. Under the plan, not only will movement be monitored but it also will be archived in massive databases for future use.
The paper reports a group of car manufacturers, technology companies and government interests have worked toward implementing the project for 13 years.
States the Creative Loafing report:
“The only way for people to evade the national transportation tracking system they’re creating will be to travel on foot. Drive your car, and your every movement could be recorded and archived. The federal government will know the exact route you drove to work, how many times you braked along the way, the precise moment you arrived – and that every other Tuesday you opt to ride the bus.
“They’ll know you’re due for a transmission repair and that you’ve neglected to fix the ever-widening crack that resulted from a pebble dinging your windshield.”
The agency’s website says its purpose is to “use advanced technology to improve the efficiency and safety of our nation’s surface transportation system.”
Critics believe the program will be used to line the pockets of business interests that stand to gain from the sale of needed technology and that the government will use the data collected to tax drivers on their driving habits.
Though the program has ominous privacy implications, Creative Loafing reports none of the privacy-rights organizations it contacted were aware of the government’s plans.
The report states that more than $4 billion in federal tax dollars has already been spent to lay the foundation for the system, which will use GPS technology and other methods to monitor Americans’ movements.
The plan includes transceivers, or “onboard units,” that will transmit data from each car to the system, the first models of which are expected to be unveiled next spring. By 2010, the paper reported, automakers hope to start installing them in cars. The goal is to equip 57 million vehicles by 2015.
Creative Loafing quotes Bill Jones, technical director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, from a speech he gave in January.
“The concept,” said Jones, “is that vehicle manufacturers will install a communications device on the vehicle starting at some future date, and equipment will be installed on the nation’s transportation system to allow all vehicles to communicate with the infrastructure.”
“The whole idea here is that we would capture data from a large number of vehicles,” Jones said at another meeting of transportation officials in May. “That data could then be used by public jurisdictions for traffic management purposes and also by private industry, such as DaimlerChrysler, for the services that they wish to provide for their customers.”
The plan sees the federal government working with auto manufacturers to place the transponders in vehicles at the factory, giving consumers little chance to drive a new car not tethered to transportation computers.
One of the program’s visions is for transportation officials to share collected data with law enforcement, meaning a driver potentially could get a speeding ticket based on information stored in a government computer.
Proponents of the system say the safety benefits are enormous. One goal is to virtually eliminate auto accidents by having vehicles “communicate” with each other.
Neil Schuster is president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a group of government and business people that’s the driving force behind the program.
“When I get on an airplane everyone in the system knows where I am,” Schuster told Creative Loafing. “They know which tickets I bought. You could probably go back through United Airlines and find out everywhere I traveled in the last year. Do I worry about that? No. We’ve decided that airline safety is so important that we’re going to put a transponder in every airplane and track it. We know the passenger list of every airplane and we’re tracking these things so that planes don’t crash into each other. Shouldn’t we have that same sense of concern and urgency about road travel? The average number of fatalities each year from airplanes is less than 100. The average number of deaths on the highway is 42,000. I think we’ve got to enter the debate as to whether we’re willing to change that in a substantial way and it may be that we have to allow something on our vehicles that makes our car safer. … I wouldn’t mind some of this information being available to make my roads safer so some idiot out there doesn’t run into me.”
At least one proponent of the plan is actually using the term “Orwellian” to describe it.
At a workshop for industry and government leaders last year, the Charlotte paper reports, John Worthington, president and CEO of TransCore – one of the companies currently under contract to develop the onboard units for cars – described the system as “kind of an Orwellian all-singing, all-dancing collector/aggregator/disseminator of transportation information.”