Is Big Brother Watching?

By John Eichberger | November 2015

It has been 31 years since George Orwell's vision of the future in "1984" came and went without incident, but technology is catching up and enabling the potential emergence of Big Brother. Of course, like all potentially invasive government programs in science fiction stories, the core objectives are clearly benevolent and seek to serve the common good - but in the wrong hands...

In all sincerity, however, there are new developments being implemented that will affect drivers, fuel demand and the environment. As the automobile industry works on vehicle-to-vehicle communications and seeks to improve autonomous and semi-autonomous features, some governments are implementing advanced traffic mitigation systems to help reduce the incidence of collisions, alleviate traffic and reduce emissions.

Systems being installed along the roadway (such as along I-66 in Virginia, on which I commute daily) evaluate traffic volume and flow patterns, communicate to drivers estimated drive times to specific destinations and, more recently, suggest speeds that would facilitate the smooth flow of traffic and provide advanced notification of lane closures so drivers can merge more efficiently.

The system today is passive - the evaluation and communication is designed to encourage drivers to behave in a way that will improve safety and reduce congestion. In addition, state traffic officials can use the data to develop strategies for improving the infrastructure to meet the stated objectives.

Meanwhile, vehicles are becoming smarter with the introduction of autonomous features. For example, many cars now come with optional adaptive cruise control which will allow the driver to set a desired speed and follow distance behind the car ahead. The system can bring the car all the way to a stop and then accelerate to the set speed control without the driver touching the brake or accelerator. Other features enable the vehicle to evaluate the driving behavior of nearby vehicles and anticipate potential collision situations and slow or accelerate the vehicle to avoid an accident.

All of these technologies are impressive and are designed to improve safety and efficiency of our road transportation system, which is desperately needed. In 2013, there were more than 32,000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. In addition, it is estimated that 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 originated in the transportation sector and that drivers wasted an estimated 2.9 billion gallons of fuel sitting in traffic in 2011. So who can object to technologies that will help address these issues?

Well, conspiracy theorists may have an ax to grind. Suppose the passive technologies are not affecting the desired change. The advanced communications systems in the vehicles could ultimately communicate directly with the stationary traffic management systems, yielding the potential for the government-installed systems to directly influence the vehicle by electronically reducing speed or by other means. While this is a highly unlikely scenario, Orwell's "1984" is a classic, read by millions the world over. The idea that the government could exert control over the population is one that grabs attention (hence, my choice of the analogy for this column).

But, other than those who would rise up against the potential emergence of Big Brother, others may express doubt that such systems will ultimately affect driver behavior to improve conditions. The passive system along I-66 in Virginia cost $38.6 million - will the return be worth the investment?

Perhaps one can look at the system on a strategic level. The data collected will be incredibly valuable to transportation officials as they plan long-term development projects, even if the system does not affect driver behavior.

The ultimate challenge will be to convince drivers to pay attention to the traffic management systems, to educate them about the purpose (I had no clue what the I-66 signage was for until I did research on these systems) and see if they will assimilate for the better good.

The world of autonomous vehicles may still be some way off in the future (I won't predict a date of fruition like Orwell did), but the technology that autonomous research has enabled is already showing up in the market. The days of anonymous driving may truly be over.

Read more from the November Issue of our Fuel for Thought newsletter.