Connected technology and the politics of driving

As the author of a book on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, I naïvely believed that the crises of 2020 would mark the beginning of the end for self-driving cars.  Why, I wondered, would a rider request an on-demand vehicle without knowing whether its previous occupant coughed or sneezed all over the back seat?  And why would anyone rely on artificial intelligence to navigate when violent mobs can quickly configure from any direction?

Darker scenarios crossed my mind, including politically programmable navigation logic: "Black Lives Matter" signs — Evade! MAGA caps — Engage!  And the ultimate, a combination of drone swarm technology (multiple platforms using diverse tactics to accomplish a common mission) with the evil intentions of Christine wreaking destruction on a scale not seen before.  

Never!  Self-driving cars, I'd concluded, would soon run out of gas.

I was wrong.  Far too much money may be made for the industry to give up the ghost.  Opportunities abound not only in vehicle production, but also in enabling technologies allowing integration of vehicle and software.  "Over-the-air" technology, for instance, allows cars to download software as efficiently as your cell phone gobbles apps.  In one example, a man whose Tesla had downloaded years of updates during his absence was surprised to find his vehicle capable of  "unparking" and maneuvering toward him, something it couldn't do before.  

Not surprisingly, Microsoft has a strong investment in both over-the-air and other technologies designed to connect automotive hardware and software with user preferences.  For instance, speed data may be transmitted to the Cloud (but can you get a ticket for it later?) while your favorite melodies are downloaded and played.  The humble car transforms from a mere vehicle into a mobility platform, and an intelligent one, at that.

Integrated platforms do not have to be self-driving.  And what if your social media posts are added to the solution?

Imagine having a heated Facebook discussion one evening and being unable to start your car the next morning.  At that moment, your cell phone signals an incoming text, informing you that your post contained language that fact-checkers interpreted as a physical threat.  You click their link to a webpage to explain your side of the argument.  Tense, with sweat beading your brow, you hit "Send" and wait for what seems like an eternity before a return text with a happy face reminds you that where security is concerned, we are all in this together.  Your car starts.

Over the next two weeks, you scour every Facebook post for anything that might be construed a threat before sending.  One morning, your car doesn't start, and you immediately hear your cell phone's chirp.  Clicking the dreaded link, you read that the "False Information" you shared the previous day could lead to violence by right-wing extremists.  You are not asked to explain, but instead told to delete the post immediately, as failure to do so will result in an "Auto Jail" penalty where you will not be able to start your car for the next two days.

Shocked, you make a quick mental calculation of your planned tasks and how you'd accomplish them sans vehicle.  As if sensing your thoughts, your cell phone twitters again, this time flashing a green band with happy faces and hearts adorning the phrase, "We're All in This Together!"  Angry now, you raise your finger to the screen, determined to send those icons into electronic oblivion...

...until you remember that your friend, Jack, who'd gone down the same road and committed a few more infractions, ended up "deplatformed" — prevented from driving (though with an appeal pending).

With connected mobility platforms, the possibilities for control are endless.  

Anyone willing to give Big Tech his car keys, raise your hand.

Barbara G. Grant is an electro-optical engineer, author, and teacher.  Her website is

Image: Tabercil

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