A future surveillance state seems inevitable. Law enforcement agencies are already accessing user data shared with Google, Facebook, and other digital service providers, often circumventing any constitutional concerns by purchasing the information like any other company. If Hyundai Motor Group’s Orwellian vision of the future becomes reality, that data could soon be coming from your car as well.

The company highlighted the winners of its 2023 Ideas Festival, a program designed to foster and produce creative research concepts from its employees. This year’s theme was “Technology with a Heart that Changes the World,” and one of the bronze prize winners was an idea called “H-SOS.”

The concept imagines a future where a car equipped with external microphones could always be listening for signs of distress, like a person screaming or an explosion. If it detects such an occurrence, the car could activate its headlights, hazards, and horn and begin using its cameras to record its surroundings.

It would then alert police, sending officers the vehicle’s location and video footage. For cases of extreme crimes or disasters, the car could alert nearby vehicle owners to stay away from the area.

Much of the technology for such a connected car already exists. It’s the implementation and integration that is lacking. Tesla’s Sentry Mode is famous for catching vandals and thieves of all varieties, and Rivian’s vehicles feature a similar video security system.

Shazam and Google can listen to a few seconds of a song and identify it, while SoundThinking Inc.’s technology, formerly ShotSpotter, uses algorithms to listen for gunshots across several American cities. While a human does listen to the audio before alerting the authorities, there are ongoing debates about the technology’s efficacy and usefulness.

Many modern cars are already connected to the internet in some capacity, capable of receiving over-the-air updates via cellular network or WiFi. General Motors has been offering connected services through OnStar for nearly 30 years, which can track and remotely slow down stolen vehicles and alert police to their location.

The proposed implementation is an “idea for building a social safety net to prevent crimes and accidents in blind spots,” which sounds hopeful. Technology like this is not nefarious on its own, but without robust privacy protections for consumers, it makes it even easier for corrupt governments and companies to surveil whomever they want with few barriers.

Connected cars and their digitization make it easier for governments to mandate these new nanny systems in vehicles, and US regulators seem eager to test the surveillance waters. The hardware – cameras, sensors, and microphones – will only get cheaper, and software can live in the cloud thanks to 4G and 5G connectivity.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration require automakers to implement intelligent speed assistance technology to alert drivers when their vehicle exceeds the speed limit. Having the car log your speed and alert the police to any infractions seems like a logical next step for safety and feels easily feasible in 2023.

The feds also asked automakers in 2021 to explore integrating drunk driver detection technology that would prevent an intoxicated person from operating a vehicle. HMG also awarded a bronze prize to “Drunk Hunter” this year, which imagines using AI-based technology to predict and prevent drunk drivers and analyze their real-time behavior. 

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