Deep within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was signed into law by President Joe Biden is a passage that will require automakers to begin including what can be best summarized as a “vehicle kill switch” within the operating software of new cars, which is described in the bill as “advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology”. The measure has been positioned as a safety tool to help prevent drunk driving, and by 2026 (three years after the enactment of the Act, per the text) the kill switch could be mandated on every new car sold in the United States. Then there’s the broader reaching RIDE Act, which we’ll touch on in a moment.
The legislation – if you want to read it – is short on details, and does focus mainly on drunk driving and the desire to reduce fatalities. That said, the bill, now law, seeks a Drunk and Impaired Driving Prevention Technology Safety Standard. That standard seeks to equip vehicles with “advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology.”
However, that doesn’t seem to be enough for congress. Compounding on the infrastructure Act is the bipartisan RIDE Act of 2021, introduced by Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), and co-sponsored by senators Rick Scott (R-FL), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Gary peters (D-MI), seeks to take things into deeper water. Much of it appears redundant, but seems to broaden the reach of the infrastructure law’s intentions.
Per the bill, the proposed safety device will “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.”
The language of the RIDE Act bill states the following:
To require the Secretary of Transportation, acting through the
Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to
prescribe a Federal motor vehicle safety standard for advanced drunk
and impaired driving prevention technology, and for other purposes.
“For other purposes” is the squishy, catch-all language that’s likely to raise the eyebrows of anybody who enjoys the liberty of operating an automobile, while the framework of how NHTSA would implement such surveillance technology into new vehicles is a giant question in and of itself. But the bill states the following:
Technical capability.–Any advanced drunk and impaired
driving prevention technology required for new passenger motor
vehicles under subsection (a) that measures blood alcohol
concentration shall use the adult legal limit for blood alcohol
concentration of the jurisdiction in which the passenger motor
vehicle is located.
Does that mean breathalyzers for every new car? facial scanning tech? Something else? It’s hard to really know at this time. Whatever the technology ends up being, it would be used towards “driving prevention.”
Why are we calling it a “kill switch?” Because “driving prevention surveillance technology for drunk/impaired/other purposes” just doesn’t roll off the tongue. For the sake of simplicity, we’re using a colloquial term here.
In software terms, “passively” suggests the “impaired driving prevention” kill switch technology will always be running in the background and constantly monitoring the vehicle for deviation from normal driving habits, which will also mean the vehicle will need to learn your specific idiosyncrasies behind the wheel in order to better profile your behavior.
The system will receive data inputs from critical operational controls, it will also be capable of overriding those controls so as to disable the vehicle either before or during driving once impairment is detected. However, the worst part of the legislation is the open nature of the system which will feature at least one backdoor for third-party access to the system’s data at any time.
Never mind the pet conspiracy theories about hackers or other malicious forces being able to seize control of your vehicle and drive it off a cliff, what about the simple logistical aspects of this system.
How will the “kill switch” system outlined by the RIDE Act or the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act determine impairment, and will such a system be able to distinguish impairment from garden variety drowsiness? If it’s designed to combat impairment will the system even warn the driver that control of the vehicle is being seized? Are we going to find ourselves in a society where sleepy people are being trapped in their cars as hostages on the side of the road until the police arrive to decide they are in fact not impaired?
Of course, the term “impairment” is also open to interpretation. Does that include housewives and Tiger Woods types who are blasted on prescription painkillers, or whatever pharmaceutical flavor of the week is en vogue come 2026? Or are we simply looking for symptoms of drinking, or trying to determine which toke of marijuana smoke is one toke over the line?
More questions start to pop up the longer you ponder this new legislation. Who has access to the data collected by the kill switch system? Will the police be given access to the data without a warrant? What about insurance companies, will they be granted access to the data in order to better understand what kind of driver is being insured, or worse, will they know with what frequency your driving habits “change” which could then be interpreted as impairment?
Further, when it comes to “driving prevention,” are we looking at the vehicle being locked in Park while running? Or will it not run at all?
The mandatory nature of such driving prevention technology will quickly take whatever joy, independence, and freedom we still derive from vehicle ownership and turn it into a nightmare that tramples on your rights in the name of safety for your own sake.
But what are we going to do, stop buying cars?