Your Car Is a Tattletale

This is how we think it happened. Cathy Bernstein allegedly drove her Ford vehicle and collided with a truck. She then tried to drive away but collided with a van. Still determined to leave the scene, she drove off. But her car wasn't letting her get away with it.

Bernstein's Ford has the SYNC Emergency Assist system. It requires a driver to pair their phone with their car. Once paired, the vehicle can automatically dial 911 in the event it detects a collision. And that's what happened with Bernstein.

The emergency assist system did what it was supposed to do in that event: It sent emergency services information including the make and model of Bernstein's car, the time the incident happened and the car's GPS coordinates.

The 911 dispatcher felt the call was suspicious. The operator asked Bernstein if she had been in an accident. Bernstein denied it. The operator persisted, asking if perhaps Bernstein had left the scene of an accident. Bernstein's response was another denial.

Police investigated, visiting the woman's home. They found her vehicle had suffered damage that appeared recently and that it looked as though there were paint from another vehicle on her car. They also noted the air bag had deployed. They brought Bernstein to a hospital for treatment and then escorted her to jail.

We now live in a world in which our very possessions can tell on us. To be fair, the Ford system is opt-in. You have to pair your phone with the car for it to work — nothing is going on without your consent and participation, at least initially. And most people are probably glad that a hit-and-run driver could be held accountable for the crime. But this incident is another indication that cars are evolving and could raise other questions.

The European Union wants all new vehicles to have systems similar to Ford's emergency assist features by 2018. This initiative, called eCall, is particularly interesting, since the EU has traditionally valued citizens' privacy. But how can you protect privacy while also implementing an automated system that can report on the location of a car — and presumably the car's driver? As our vehicles become more connected, we give up more privacy.

Perhaps this is just one more step to true Carmageddon, when all our personal vehicles will be a thing of the past and we'll rely upon a fleet of autonomous electric cars to whisk us away to our destinations on demand. In that future, maybe the cars are so smart that we never have to worry about calling 911 from inside a vehicle again. But is that future a dream or a nightmare?