Monday, April 5, 2010

Sensors Gone Wild

I drove a rental vehicle in Seattle recently that gave me a horrifying vision of the future. It was a six-passenger van manufactured by Chevrolet, chosen so that we could drive around with both my friend Andrew and his kids without having to take two cars.

It was sufficiently huge that once the kids were strapped in, they couldn't close the sliding doors with enough force to close them securely. This would prompt a message on the dashboard: RIGHT REAR PASSENGER DOOR AJAR. This would in turn force Andrew to get out and slide the door shut again. But his doing so would trigger even more frantic error messages: PASSENGER SEAT BELT UNFASTENED and PASSENGER DOOR AJAR. (Yes, they were in capital letters; I'm surprised there weren't exclamation points involved.)

Andrew and I immediately began imagining an over-networked world where sensors cause havoc instead of promoting safety. "Can you imagine some poor guy trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital?" Andrew asked. "The car wouldn't start if she couldn’t get the seat belt around her midsection, and then you'd start getting all sorts of error messages: SEAT BELT NOT FASTENED. PASSENGER SCREAMS DETECTED. PASSENGER SEAT DAMPNESS DETECTED."

As a technology writer, I started realizing that all sorts of other nightmare scenarios were possible. At times, do-gooders have suggested that cars should have kill switches, so that the engines can't be started in any of a number of situations: an alcohol sensor indicates the driver is too intoxicated, or the seatbelt sensor indicates one or more of them is not fastened.

So what if car sensors networked with online banking systems? You'd try to start the car and start getting messages indicating you weren't going anywhere: PROPERTY TAX BILL NOT YET PAID; TRAVEL ON LOCAL ROADS NOT ALLOWED. GAS TANK ONE-QUARTER FULL, NO FILL-UPS ALLOWED UNTIL GAS CREDIT CARD BILL PAID.

These belittling warnings, of course, would not just be flashed on the dashboard; undoubtedly someone will figure out how to have that same annoying woman who sighs "calculating route" and "when possible, make a legal U-turn" on your GPS when you've gone in the wrong direction deliver them as well. An added "benefit": the volume would increase depending on how late your payments were.

With Webcams are already standard equipment on many computers, they'll probably migrate into cars before too long. I can only imagine algorithms that analyze how people are dressed, taking into account colors, patterns, and skin tones. Parents could have the car announce to their teen-agers: YOU'RE NOT GOING OUT DRESSED LIKE THAT. The algorithms, of course, could be reconfigured using a Web site based on the appropriate season. Heck, I'm thinking women would order this to make sure their husbands couldn't go out wearing striped shirts and plaid pants.

Hmmm. I may have stumbled on to something that will get people using mass transit.

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