Big brother takes the wheel?



AT WHAT point do compulsory vehicle ‘safety inclusions’ veer into a breach of privacy and freedom of choice?

That’s the question that will be inescapable when, in 2022, cars sold in the European Union will be required to be fitted with an array of new safety systems as standard, including intelligent speed limiters (ISL), an alcohol interlock system to prevent intoxicated driving, and data monitors that record every detail – including speed, speed zones, and locations – of each journey.

These are just some of the mandates woven into legislation approved by the European Commission. It’s due to come into effect from May 2022 for new models yet to be designed, and May 2024 for updates of models currently on the market. (The measures are subject to the formal approval of the European Parliament and EU member states in September.)

It’s the compulsory inclusion of intelligent speed assistance (ISA), which can use GPS data and sign-recognition cameras, that’s attracting the most scrutiny

But don’t dismiss all this as only affecting vehicles in Europe. Vehicles sold in Australia have to conform to the ‘type approval’ process to meet the same minimum standards held in Europe and other markets – a Volkswagen or Mercedes sold in Australia differs little from that of its overseas counterpart.

It’s the compulsory inclusion of intelligent speed assistance (ISA), which can use GPS data and sign-recognition cameras, that’s attracting the most scrutiny. Wheels understands the system can be overridden by heavier pressure on the throttle pedal to push past the ‘haptic feedback’, but critics and civil libertarians highlight that it’s potentially the first step towards total governance of a car’s speed. Then there’s the insurance ramifications of turning the system off temporarily once it’s a legal requirement.

Examining ISA, respected British journalist Andrew Frankel wrote in online platform Drive Nation, “this means you’ll have to tell the car if you intend to speed, and it’ll record the fact if you do.”

But Frankel is equally wary of the ramifications of mandatory data loggers, and longer term, and the wider-reaching implications they may expose. “Actually it’s the data logger that concerns me most because your car will retain every detail of your every journey, and you don’t need to be an Orwell scholar to spot something disturbingly Big Brother about that,” he said.

And as for the alcohol interlock system? It’s not quite as intrusive and draconian as some outlets first reported; it’s not the full installation of the ignition-defeating device currently ordered by magistrates to be fitted to the vehicles of repeat drink-drive offenders. Rather, it’s the provision for such a device, hardwired into the vehicle’s ECU, that the legislation demands.

Other mandatory inclusions in the legislation are less controversial.

They include lane-departure warning systems, driver drowsiness and attention warnings, and emergency brakelight signalling in the event of heavy braking.

Antonio Avenoso, executive director of the European Transport Safety Council, said this about the new legislation: “There have only been a handful of moments in the last 50 years which could be described as big leaps forward for road safety in Europe. The mandatory introduction of the seatbelt was one, and the first EU minimum crash safety standards, agreed in 1998, was another. If this agreement is given the formal green light, it will represent another of those moments.” Not everyone shares this sentiment.


Safe or sorry?

At its very essence, the car encapsulates freedom. Freedom from the constraints of public transport, freedom of the open road, freedom of expression, in terms of the car you choose and how it represents you. At Wheels, we share concerns that aspects of this legislation have the potential to erode that.

If you agree, get in touch and share your thoughts about how these changes could affect you and the car-buying decisions you may make in the future.