Big Brother at the Wheel?

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-09-03 Print this article Print

I wrote a few weeks ago about the guy in Connecticut who was fined by a car rental place that had tracked his speeds using global positioning satellites

I wrote a few weeks ago about the guy in Connecticut who was fined by a car rental place that had tracked his speeds using global positioning satellites — I was appalled, and figured that everyone who read the column would be, too. But I was wrong.

Acme Rent-a-Car in New Haven automatically debited the customers bank account each time he exceeded the speed limit for a couple of minutes. My take was that the practice is outrageous and the rental car company was pretty gutsy to think it could get away with such abuse of technology.

But a lot of readers saw Acmes fines as a legitimate way to protect its assets, not as a way for it to enforce laws. Some said they actually would make a point of renting from companies like Acme, because their policies are responsible and understandable, and because they could potentially charge lower prices, as the GPS tracking reduces liability.

They miss one important point, though — also suggested by a reader. Instead of GPS, car rental companies could just as easily install governors that prevent drivers from exceeding certain speeds. Some vehicles are already equipped with mechanisms that limit how fast they can go for different reasons — for example, because the tires can only withstand certain speeds. But companies like Acme may be inclined to stick with the GPS policy because there is financial benefit to fining drivers.

At the other end of the spectrum, some readers think that legislation preventing companies like Acme from using GPS to fine drivers is absolutely necessary consumer protection. "My fear is that too many uninformed consumers are complacent about all this and thus our privacy is going to be infringed in more ways than we can imagine," one reader wrote. This group is afraid that if we dont rein in the misuse of wireless technology now, the future will allow companies or the government to track our every move.

I think legislation should be used as a last resort. I also think companies like Acme need to be clearer about their policies; the driver suing the company says he didnt know hed be fined for driving above a certain speed. Sure, buyers are responsible for understanding what theyre purchasing, but, honestly, who can bear to read the fine print on multiple-page contracts?

If companies are forthcoming about their policies, the market will decide if it cares to employ them — but only if there is choice. What if all car rental companies start fining for speeding? For those of you who dont like what Acme is doing, maybe someday your only choice will be to not rent a car or to figure out how to disable the GPS system.

Ideally, companies like Acme wouldnt try to swindle people, but, of course, that could be too much to hope for.


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