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What the EU’s new road safety laws could mean for civil liberties

In a bid to overhaul road safety, the European Union has introduced sweeping new car regulations which could pave the way for wholesale data collection and the potential for 24/7 surveillance.

The European parliament has approved regulations that will make speed limiters and data loggers a mandatory feature of all new cars.

The technology uses GPS trackers to assess the road’s speed limits, before limiting the car’s engine power to that speed. The driver would have the power to override the reduction in speed, but would be flashed with a warning message if they do so. All cars will also be fitted with a “black box” data recorder in case of an accident. These boxes can store location, vehicle speed, and braking data, though at present the EU has not indicated what data the boxes will preserve, nor whether it will be accessible from outside the car.

The technology will be implemented from May 2022. The European Transport Safety Council welcomed the move, saying the devices will save 25,000 lives over the next 15 years and reduce collisions by 30 percent.

But this technology, which means all cars’ locations will be tracked, has raised concerns about privacy. Big Brother Watch, a UK privacy campaign group, tweeted that the program “goes against the principles of liberty and free choice,” allowing governments to perform extensive data collection that “could be misused or sold to insurance companies.”

This speed-limiting technology is not the only form of emerging innovation the EU is implementing with the potential to contribute to vast data collection on citizens’ actions.

Drowsiness, attention detection and distraction recognition technology will also be mandatory safety features in all new cars under the EU regulations.

This technology has already been featured in some models of vehicles from car manufacturers including Volvo, Audi and Mercedes. It is powered by a combination of cameras, facial monitoring technology and sensors to detect if a driver is falling asleep. In 2017, with a grant from the European Commission, Volvo ran a program to encourage drivers to take a break by detecting sleepiness from their movements and helping them navigate to the nearest coffee shop.

EU commissioner Elzbieta Blenkowska said in a statement, “Now we can raise the safety level across the board, and pave the way for connected and automated mobility of the future.”

Beyond the new European regulations, the AI industry is going even further to monitor drivers’ mood. Boston-based tech company Affectiva, which emerged out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab in 2009, has been developing “Emotion Artificial Intelligence” to measure the mood and reaction of drivers. The system uses voice and facial recognition technology though cameras and microphones installed in the cars.

Alongside drowsiness, Affectiva’s data can be used to track things like road rage, and create personalized music playlists to match drivers’ mood. According to its website, the company has collected 6.5 million face videos to inform its AI algorithm. Affectiva hopes to roll out this technology in 2020, and says the data will be processed locally rather than connected to the cloud.

The new technology marks the shift to a driving experience where not only the location and speed of the car is tracked, but every movement, facial expression, and mood of drivers inside the car is assessed and monitored and potentially sourced as part of a vast data set on human behavior.