You may have seen the sensational headlines about mandatory “kill switches” the government will require in cars as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Job Acts.
Though the new law doesn’t allow the government to lodge secret kill switches into cars, its vague language and implications raise privacy and legal concerns.
Here’s what you need to know about the law, what it’s intended to do, and the potential implications.
What Is The “Kill Switch Law?”
The words “kill switch” are nowhere to be found in the language of the Infrastructure Investment and Job Acts. In fact, the whole thing is misleading because if you’re thinking of installing a kill switch in a car, you’re probably motivated by theft deterrence.
What some media are referring to as the “Kill Switch Law” is actually Sec. 24220 of the Act called “Advanced impaired driving technology.” It allows the government to require that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) create vehicles that “passively monitor the performance of a motor vehicle driver to identify accurately whether that driver may be impaired.”
This technology already exists in some form. For example, Volvo is placing speed limiters, long-range LIDAR, and in-car cameras in their vehicles. These cameras monitor the driver’s eyes and, if the car suspects drunk or drowsy driving, may alert Volvo On Call (Volvo’s driver assistance program), slow down, or pull over and park. This will be standard on Volvo EX90.
What We Know About the “Kill Switch” Law
We know the government wants to crack down on drunk and impaired driving and will require detection technology in future vehicles.
We also know that any in-vehicle camera or biometric monitoring system will collect personal data. At a time when people are considering the privacy benefits of deleting their social media accounts, this is cause for concern.
Given that hackers and other bad actors could use the data produced by these vehicle monitoring systems to the detriment of society, expect to see heated discussions about security measures in the coming years.
Another thing we can expect, depending on the implementation of this technology, is errors and exceptions. For example, how would the algorithm handle people with eye conditions (cross-eyed or lazy eyes)? What if someone severely depressed drives in a way that mimics someone sleepy? You can run these thought experiments seemingly ad infinitum.
On the legal side, if a vehicle determines someone is impaired and causes an accident as it pulls over to stop, who is responsible? These questions and many more will be part of the conversation as the government looks to enact this by 2026. It’s important to note that the law allows time extensions, and considering the time it will take OEMs to implement this; it’s not likely to happen on their ideal timeline.
What We Don’t Know About Sec. 24220
One part of Section 24220 requires that “passively and accurately detect whether the blood alcohol concentration of a driver of a motor vehicle is equal to or greater than the blood alcohol concentration described in…” You may have read that and wondered, “Do they want to require breathalyzers in all new cars?”
Yes. The National Transportation Safety Board is pushing for exactly that.
According to AP News, research is underway that can use fingerprints to detect blood alcohol levels. Another technology draws the driver’s breath into the steering column or driver-side door and tests it. That’s right. Just breathe normally, and because alcohol and carbon dioxide absorb different amounts of light, sensors can detect illegal blood alcohol concentrations.
However, seeing as blood alcohol concentration is influenced by weight, gender, food consumption, etc., it remains to be seen how these factors will be accounted for.
Perhaps the biggest thing we don’t know is how the public will react. It’s easy to imagine that some would avoid buying a new car. Would the government require that older vehicles be retrofitted with some form of this technology? That seems unlikely given the cost, engineering challenges, and the fact that a few protests might make the French Revolution look like a minor scuffle—but who knows? Public sentiment remains to be seen.
Reuters reports that Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson said:
“It would be easy to say that people can do whatever they like but we feel we have a responsibility to do this. Maybe people will see us as ‘Big Brother’, but if we save some lives then it’s worth it.”
Even Apple is trying to stop drunk drivers by turning their smartphones into breathalyzers. At this point, we are unsure of more than we know. We don’t even know what kind of data these vehicles will collect or who will have access to it.
The Future of Government-Mandated Vehicle Monitoring
Though the “kill switch” law is a misnomer, people are right to be concerned about how the government will monitor them and use their data. Installing impaired driving presentation technology poses a plethora of social, legal, and logistical challenges.
Large-scale social changes are possible. If someone from the 1950s were to walk into a restaurant today, they’d be shocked to see no one was smoking. In a few decades, self-driving cars might let us nap during commutes. That would render this cutting-edge technology superannuated, though it would be excellent fodder for grandparents looking to regale their grandchildren of the “When I was your age…” variety.