Vehicle kill switches and other horrible things Washington is doing to us from a distance

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The remote kill switch for automobiles authorized by the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in 2021 is a prime example of how the most egregious regulation can come from Congress rather than agencies, often with Republicans’ help.

The ability to remotely disable a vehicle is not new, of course. Long used in theft prevention, you can buy disabling gear on Amazon yourself. The question is over who performs a remote shutoff of a car, and when it happens.

The new vehicle kill switch accelerates government regulation down a sorry new road, with bureaucrats and authorities soon capable of clicking and swiping from afar to strand you.  

The rationale this time—there’s always a rationale for regulatory overreach—is to combat drunk driving.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) last week offered an amendment to budget legislation to defund the kill switch mandate. That amendment failed, with 19 Republicans joining 210 Democrats to support remote monitoring of vehicles.

The “fact checkers” have tended to downplay the significance of remote federal disabling of cars with assertions that authorities cannot simply disengage vehicles “at will.” Politicians last week claimed vehicles won’t really be monitored or disabled, according to Massie.

But right there in black and white, Section 24220 of the IIJA specifically calls for a system that can “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired,” and, that done, “prevent or limit motor vehicle operation if an impairment is detected.”

Things are rolling fast, so to speak. The capabilities “must be standard equipment in all new passenger motor vehicles” by 2026. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is far down the road on gathering data to finalize rulemaking. NHTSA is writing the rule, but the law doesn’t specify who actually pushes the kill switch and how, which is bound to be a smash-up derby.

For decades now, concerns over biometrics and surveillance have come fast and furious. In that vein, something that needs more attention is that the new system does not stop at monitoring cars, but will also monitor you in order to “passively and accurately detect whether the blood alcohol concentration of a driver” meets a threshold.

To believe newly enabled kill-switch technology will be confined to combatting drunk driving is to pay no sober attention to the proclivities of modern helicopter government. Since no one stopped the kill switch, various agencies can be expected to readily involve themselves in remote enforcement of speed restrictions, no drive zones, emissions monitoring, vehicle sidelining when emergency vehicles pass, preventing startup if the seatbelt isn’t clicked, and the like. 

What, one might wonder, would have happened had federally mandated disabling technologies been in place when vaccine passports were contemplated three years ago—and what will occur in the event of another pandemic?

If the drunk-driving kill switch for cars survives, plenty more is on tap. The same Internet of Things allowing agencies to monitor drivers can also enable instantaneous nanny-state regulation from a distance of drones, buildings and such. Thus emboldened, next in line can be social media use, online advertising, approved digital schoolbook updates and more.

As Singularity Hub noted years ago, “regulations … written into software” could be highly appealing to rule-writers. A “No drones within 100 feet of federal buildings,” mandate, for example, could be enforced by requiring software patches altering GPS coordinates, and disabling drones guilty of non-compliance.

The Environmental Protection Agency already invests in tracking office workers’ energy and water usage. What might an EPA drunk on Green New Deal absinthe do with rooftop-mounted carbon-footprint monitors, or a capability to override commercial building water and energy usage and thermostat settings? Would tomorrow’s EPA have interest in remotely countermanding people’s smart home preferences? You know the answer.

Newfangled environmental stewardship via “satellites, sensors and AI” is a thing.  Just a bit of such reflection shows the ominous implications of kill switch capabilities in the hands of a powerful Administrative State. Contemplate tomorrow’s bureaucratic mindset in charge of “smart city” operations and infrastructure. Or ponder central bank digital currencies and the de-banking/deplatforming capabilities they afford in, for example, a nation requiring that $600 transactions be reported to the IRS by online marketplaces and apps.

The kill switch heralds a dangerous, unapologetic new surveillance mentality, and demonstrates the increasing impossibility of anonymity and privacy in a networked world unless authorities are stopped from treating us like human bar codes. The House’s upholding of the kill switch happened at about the same time declassifications show US intelligence agencies continue bulk data collections and mishandling of American’s private information.

This urge to use new technology to regulate more things and people’s behavior has been around a long time. The Obama era even brought talk of a kill switch for the Internet itself, allegedly to protect cybersecurity.

One would hope that if members of Congress had thought through the wider implications they would have voted differently last week on the vehicle kill switch and its ominous erosion of civil liberties.