Remember the opening sequence of "The Sopranos"? Mob boss Tony Soprano drives out of the Lincoln Tunnel, stops at a tollbooth and grabs a ticket. Why didn't he just use E-ZPass and keep on driving? The answer: Telematics, the high-tech marriage of telecommunications and computers. An E-ZPass transponder on the windshield of Soprano's SUV would send the time and location to a billing center, but it could also inform the FBI of his whereabouts.
A mob boss should be paranoid about telematics, but what about the rest of us? The NSA is logging who we call, computer punks are accessing our Twitter accounts, and hackers are opening our car-door locks. But do we know who's watching us when we drive? Each time you are in your car -- and we drive an average of 37 miles per day -- you enter into what a Rutgers University study calls a "sensor-rich" environment. And the number of devices that watch when, where and how you drive is multiplying. Devices like E-ZPass are "dynamic." They record and transmit information from the car to a hovering satellite and then to a databank -- often on a second-by-second basis -- allowing the vendor to obtain information. A global positioning system (GPS), such as OnStar, is another, as is LoJack, which reports the position of a stolen vehicle to police. Other devices provide "static" information, such as license plate and Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs). They don't transmit data, but meter maids or retailers scan this information and send it. In Los Angeles, license plate readers on both the front and back of police cars can take pictures of every license plate and run it through a database to check for criminal activity. Insurance companies say that the more you drive, the more likely you are to have an accident. Many state insurance regulators agree that this is a legitimate way to rate drivers.
The black box
At the heart of most car monitoring systems is the so-called "black box," which is installed in every newer car whether the driver wants it or not and is almost impossible to remove. Carmakers prefer the term "diagnostic port," because warning lights tell you about the operation of your car. But it also monitors how a driver steers, brakes, speeds and even if he or she wears a seat belt. By inference, it can even tell who is at the wheel, since driving styles are as individual as handwriting.