Editorial: Why Are People Worried About Automotive ‘Kill Switch’ Mandates?


why are people worried about automotive kill switch mandates

This year has seen a surge of panicked reports discussing how the U.S. government has mandated vehicle hardware that would allow authorities to wrestle control away from the driver. Usually referenced as a “kill switch,” the device is supposed to be required on every new automobile manufactured after 2025.

The claim hangs responsibility on the extremely broad Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was passed in November of 2021. But the pertinent legislation actually focuses on combating impaired motorists by mandating “advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology” as standard equipment. Though it doesn’t get all that specific in terms of what entails and gives an incredible amount of leeway to federal regulators.

Due to having previously speculated on the matter myself, I’m routinely asked what the end result will be. Queries have only increased in 2023, as more people began creating content suggesting that tomorrow’s cars will be capable of being shut down by police for any reason. This has predictably been countered by a slew of authoritative-sounding rebuttals stating that everything is above board and nobody should bother worrying about government overreach as vehicles are outfitted with driver monitoring systems.

There are now fact-checking websites that are designed to counter other fact-checking websites who likewise want to pretend to have the market cornered on factual information. In the end, the vast majority boils down to contradictory talking points and trying to shape a desired narrative. Nobody really knows what the legislation will bring into effect because the relevant decisions haven’t been made yet by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

But what is certain is that the provisions included within the trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will eventually result in some form of driver monitoring. That’s likely to come by either an ignition interlocking device that would require drivers to utilize a breathalyzer before setting off, or some kind of comprehensive driver monitoring system that uses audio-visual cues to determine the driver’s present status.

The latter seems the more likely option. Modern automobiles are already loaded up with microphones and are capable of transmitting control inputs, positional data, and plenty more back to the manufacturer. The automotive industry has also begun installing in-cabin camera systems to help track what occupants are doing. Originally, the concept was floated as a way to safeguard from distracted driving. But it’s also more lucrative info for an industry that now seems completely obsessed with data mining its own customers.

While it wasn’t long ago when the idea of networked vehicles and driver monitoring were dismissed as the kinds of things that only happened in authoritarian countries, Western governments appear to be changing their tune. The European Union already has laws in place to establish mandatory “ Driver Monitoring Systems” (DMS) under the auspices of public safety. Interestingly, they’re also supposed to go into effect in 2026.

The United States’ version was presented a little differently, presumably to placate an American audience that tends to be more liberty-minded than its European counterpart. However, the end result is likely to be extremely similar, depending on how the NHTSA decides to interpret the rules. It’s almost like America simply copied Europe’s homework and changed a few key words to avoid accusations of plagiarism.

Meanwhile, there’s a surplus of outlets telling you not to worry as assertions about the forthcoming system’s potential to violate civil liberties are dismissed. But these are never based in fact and typically depend on expert testimony operating on an assumption of government benevolence. The Associated Press did exactly this in March of 2023 when it downplayed criticisms of the scheme before quoting Robert Strassburger, president and CEO of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, which is currently involved in a public-private partnership with NHTSA to create these so-called safety devices.

He stated that the partnership agreement includes a requirement to build security measures that would prevent third parties from accessing any data collected by the technology. But that seems like an impossible guarantee to make and feels like another example of the corporate world getting into bed with the government to advance the kind of things regular people aren’t asking for.

Hackers have already proven older vehicles that offer less connectivity are vulnerable to remote attacks. Depending on how the above is implemented, tomorrow’s cars may be even more vulnerable and I’m not inclined to believe any guarantees made about legislation that effectively hands complete control over to federal regulators.

It could also be argued that the Associated Press’ organizational structure is a collection of legacy media outlets (which tend to be funded by multinational corporations) and the AFL-CIO and that makes it little more than an establishment megaphone. While I wouldn’t go that far, I would assert that its reporting lacked objectivity despite framing itself as such. At a minimum, its coverage of the topic of driver monitoring certainty lacked nuance, with the takeaway being that claims that the technology could be abused should simply be ignored as ridiculous.

That doesn’t make critics who are convinced that the government will abuse novel safety technologies correct. But seeing corporate press outlets simply dismiss valid public concerns as false information has continued ramping up over the years and is a cliche at this point. We’ve been down this road so many times before.

There are often conflicting narratives presented, with both sides having an agenda and readers needing to tread carefully if they’re to ever suss out what’s real.

The truth is that nobody really knows what will happen in 2026 because the relevant legislation gives an incredible amount of leeway to government regulators. Based on how the law is written, the NHTSA can basically interpret impairment any way it likes and decide how driver monitoring systems assess this and ultimately respond.

I would wager that’s a problem in itself.

Maybe impaired driving means someone who is displaying the hallmarks of being severely intoxicated. Then again, maybe the NHTSA will decide that it needs to keep people monitored at all times to maximize the resulting device’s potential.

It’s not like we haven’t seen mission creep in literally every government agency that’s ever existed. But it also needs to be said that leadership changes. Tomorrow’s department heads may have a totally different concept of what forms of privacy invasion are justifiable. However, it’s not as if the current NHTSA and Department of Transportation (DOT) have done a stellar job in general. Fatal accident rates have exploded in recent years, with the department’s initial explanation being that everyone just sort of lost their minds and started speeding in 2020.

The present solution? Embrace roadwork designs that are more restrictive to drivers, ignore practical solutions while leaning into novel technologies, and shift the focus toward environmentalism. The NHTSA has been broadly accepting of automakers utilizing touch screens, despite a mountain of evidence suggesting they’re less safe than physical buttons. It likewise offers support for the public advancement of self-driving technologies under the assumption that they’ll eventually lead to safer roads. But the more you read about the overriding premise, the more it seems like government regulators simply want to back the industry to ensure the United States ends up profiting while they accrue more authority.

The DOT just recently stated that creating a national network that permanently linked modern vehicles to government surveillance grids might reduce “potential crash scenarios” by 12 percent. There’s already government funding in place to help encourage municipalities to begin installing the technology and loads of support from industry lobbying groups like the 5G Automotive Association. But it’s all wildly speculative, with there being very few data points to draw from, and seems to be advanced primarily by the companies that stand the most to gain from obtaining government contracts.

It’s certainly more complicated than suggesting the Department of Transportation is corrupt or wholly inept at promoting safety. However, its focus has moved away from ensuring roads are in good condition and vehicles are designed in a manner that maximizes occupant safety. You don’t really see the NHTSA offering up studies pertaining to vehicle weight disparities, even though the issue has undoubtedly contributed to the rise in fatal accidents we’ve seen in recent years.

The NHTSA has released comprehensive reports on the topic every few years, with one of the last examples appearing to have come about in 2016. However, the agency doesn’t seem to have done much to address the problem. In fact, government regulations are probably the main reason we’ve seen vehicles growing to massive proportions since 2011 — something we’ve covered in the past.

That’s enough regulatory bashing for now. Your opinions on the NHTSA and DOT of today may very well differ and my complaints may not be indicative of future screw-ups. But it remains important to consider all eventualities, as these are the groups making important decisions seemingly without a lot of consideration for the general public.

The same goes for legislators, who have displayed a serious lack of understanding in regard to automotive technologies. Consider just how much leeway has been given to autonomous vehicle testing in public. Congress and federal regulators appear to have bought into the corporate narrative about self-driving cars and advanced driving aids. But grandiose industrial promises have failed to manifest and consumers seem decidedly less impressed with the user experience of modern automobiles, which is to say nothing about the disdain being thrown at autonomous test vehicles.

I suppose the conclusion is to be wary of everything you’re told. Everyone exclaiming that there will soon be ways of remotely disabling your vehicle is absolutely living in the land of conjecture. But so are the groups asserting that there’s no cause for concern before the NHTSA decides how to implement the vague regulatory language outlined in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Maybe things would have gone more smoothly if this wasn’t buried in an expansive, 1,039-page piece of legislation nobody had time to read before voting. I certainly would have felt better about it if it had been part of a document focused entirely on automotive safety regulations and given time for critical assessments. But it wasn’t and that has upset people who are now trying to express concerns that are being strategically dismissed on the grounds that they’re not qualified to even discuss the topic.

I’m curious to hear everyone’s take on the matter — both the way in which today’s automotive regulations are being implemented and whether the forthcoming “advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology” is something you’re optimistic about.

[Image: Ford Motor Co.]

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