In November 2021, former US Representative from Georgia Bob Barr wrote a little-noticed political column claiming that buried inside President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure legislation was a dangerous provision that would go into effect in five years.
“Marketed to Congress as a benign tool to help prevent drunk driving, the measure will mandate that automobile manufacturers build into every car what amounts to a ‘vehicle kill switch,’” wrote Barr, who was the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president in 2008.
Like most Americans, I had never heard of this alleged “kill switch” until a few days ago when Representative Thomas Massie, a libertarian-leaning Republican, proposed to strip the mandate’s funding.
“The right to travel is fundamental, but the government has mandated a kill-switch in new vehicles sold after 2026,” said Massie. “The kill-switch will monitor driver performance and disable cars based on the information gathered.”
Nineteen Republicans joined all but one Democrat in opposing Massie’s amendment, which failed.
True or False?
The claim that the feds would mandate that every new motor vehicle include technology that could disable the vehicle seemed ludicrous. So I started Googling.
To my relief, I saw several fact-checkers at legacy institutions had determined the “kill switch” mandate was not true.
“Our rating: False,” said USA Today.
“ASSESSMENT: False,” said the Associated Press.
“We rate it Mostly False,” concluded PolitiFact.
(Snopes, a reliably left-leaning fact check group, was a little less conclusive, saying the claim was a “mixture” of true and false.)
Unfortunately, my relief evaporated once I looked at the bill itself.
Sec. 24220 of the law explicitly states: “[T]o ensure the prevention of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities, advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology must be standard equipment in all new passenger motor vehicles.”
The legislation then goes on to define the technology as a computer system that can “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle” and can “prevent or limit motor vehicle operation if an impairment is detected” (emphasis added).
How the system will make this determination is unclear, as is the government’s potential role in apprehending suspected drunk drivers (more on that later).
But the law’s language could not be more clear: New motor vehicles must have a computer system to “monitor” drivers, and the system must be able to prevent vehicle operation if it detects impairment.
“No Mention in the Bill of a ‘Kill Switch’”
How fact-checkers determined the “kill switch” narrative to be false is odd, especially since the articles don’t deny Barr’s central claim: The legislation mandates a computer system that will monitor driving performance and be able to disable motor vehicles.
The Associated Press conceded the law would “prevent or limit motor vehicle operation” if the system suspects the driver is impaired, even “disable a vehicle from being operated.” So did USA Today and PolitiFact.
To arrive at their conclusion that this car-killing mechanism is just a fantasy, fact-checkers resorted to sleight of hand. A common tactic was to debunk social media posts that were actually false or unfounded, like the popular claim that the systems would be required to alert law enforcement if the drivers were deemed impaired.
“None of the technologies currently in development would notify law enforcement,” the Associated Press assured readers.
In an odd bit of uniformity, each of the fact-checkers said spokespeople for groups who support the system, such as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), told them they would never support giving law enforcement access to the system.
My personal favorite, however, was PolitiFact.
“[We] found no mention in the bill of a ‘kill switch,’” PolitiFact concluded.
The idea that the absence of the words “kill switch” in the bill is evidence that a disabling mechanism doesn’t actually exist in the legislation is nothing short of gaslighting.
‘Secure in Persons and Effects’?
The unpleasant truth is that lawmakers slipped into a massive spending bill a mandate that stands to require all new vehicles to have AI-driven technology that can disable your vehicle if the technology determines you’ve had one beer too many. And fact-checkers are using headlines to make it sound as if the legislation does no such thing.
It’s true there is currently no mechanism in the legislation that would require law enforcement to be notified if drivers are suspected of inebriation. But the Associated Press notes that the law “leaves most of the details up to NHTSA” (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to determine at a future date.
From my reading of the bill, there is nothing in the legislation that would prevent NHTSA from requesting or receiving this data. Does anyone believe that in 2027, if the NHTSA requested that system manufacturers turn over the information they collect, it would be told no? Don’t bet on it. The Twitter Files show how quick companies comply when the feds come knocking on their door to retrieve their data, and just how little they care about the privacy of Americans.
And that word — privacy — barely appears in any of the three “fact-checks.” (The single instance is when a MADD spokesman assured readers that the organization remains committed to driver privacy, even though it was supporting a computer system that spies on drivers.) The notion that a system that “passively monitors” drivers might infringe the privacy of Americans doesn’t even seem to have crossed their minds.
Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. In a world where traffic cameras, license plate readers, NSA mass surveillance, intelligence-gathering “fusion centers,” and widespread warrantless searches are ubiquitous, privacy might seem like a quaint idea. But it’s one the Framers of the American system took seriously.
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,” the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution reads.
I’m not a constitutional scholar, but it seems to me that the federal government’s requiring automobile manufacturers to install a system that spies on its driver — and disables his car if transgressions are suspected — hardly meets this constitutional standard.
I also suspect mandating the installation of this technology is something Americans of all political stripes would overwhelmingly oppose on principle — put aside for now the immense cost on new vehicle purchases it will add — if they knew about it, which is no doubt why the provision was surreptitiously slipped into a $1 trillion spending bill.
The True Purpose of the Surveillance State
Then again, maybe Americans wouldn’t care if they knew about federal legislation that mandates tech to disable their cars if it suspects that last glass of wine — which you may or may not have had — put you over the limit.
As Robert E. Wright has pointed out, once upon a time, Americans considered spying an invasion of privacy, but those days are mostly gone. Increasingly, many take an “I have nothing to hide” approach. Few seem to realize they are almost certainly breaking laws each day unknowingly, and I’m not talking about driving 65 in a 55 mph zone.
In his popular book Three Felonies a Day, author Harvey A. Silverglate noted that the typical American commits just that: three felonies per day (four, if you see a felony and don’t report it, which is also a crime).
Over the last century, the Land of the Free has slowly transformed into a land governed by endless laws, largely by cracking down on vices instead of actual crimes, creating a society that would render us all criminals if our behavior were constantly observed. Meanwhile, the state has steadily expanded its use of mass surveillance, largely under the pretext of fighting “terror.”
This is a toxic mixture, yet most people seem largely oblivious to the danger it poses. Americans love citing 1984, but it seems few have actually read it. If they had, they’d realize that the terror of living under a surveillance state was the primary theme of George Orwell’s masterpiece, which was inspired by actual totalitarian states.
A simple glimpse into the history books reveals few things are quite as terrifying as a surveillance state. (To experience a taste, I recommend Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s fantastic 2006 German film The Lives of Others.) It’s chilling even to imagine what the Stasi or NKVD could do with modern surveillance technology.
The United States is not a totalitarian state, but its growing efforts to control information — which have grown more obvious and ambitious — show that it’s not a neutral bystander, either. Those in government have their agendas, and they are not known for playing nice with those who cross them (just ask Edward Snowden and Julian Assange).
Which brings us to the raison d’être of mass surveillance.
“The asymmetry of the surveillance state belies its true purpose: to protect the government, not the people,” writes Wright.
Once one understands this, it becomes clear why many see grand potential in a law that requires every single new motor vehicle in the country to be monitored and potentially disabled by a computer — and why rent-a-cop fact-checkers would go through such contortions to downplay this dystopian mandate.