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Do Self-Driving Cars Dream of Snitching?

The year is 2050. China has colonized Mars, income inequality is at an all-time high, and Elon Musk has finally delivered on Level 5 automation in his Tesla fleet. The future is now. But what’s next?

I’ll tell you what’s next: a global surveillance network powered by autonomous vehicles equipped with dozens of cameras and microphones. Step aside, PRISM, there’s a better way to watch people now. 👀

First, a short history lesson

As we’ve seen time and time again, technological innovation designed to push the boundaries of human potential and make our lives easier1 gets subverted for nefarious, dystopian purposes:

  • The credit card, designed to simplify personal finance, turned into a behavior-analysis method that encourages class boundaries: Buying alcohol consistently? You’re probably less likely to pay back a loan.

  • The telephone, one of the first ways for people to privately communicate across distances, hasn’t been safe from curious, state-sponsored ears in a long time.

  • Applications like Facebook, whose mission is allegedly to “give people the power to build communities,” and Google, whose mission is to “organize the world’s information,” are abstracted data-harvesting platforms that use everything they learn about you to reliably sell you things.

  • The smartphone in general, a handheld device granting the world instant access to infinite knowledge and opportunity, is mostly just a location- and behavior-tracking platform. Ads aside, it’s also used by the government to suppress dissent.

Even the machine gun was invented with the reduction of human suffering in mind:

If I could invent a gun which could, by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, it would supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle would be greatly diminished.

— Richard Jordan Gatling, on the invention of the machine gun

And we all know how that turned out.

With all of that in mind,2 why wouldn’t the self-driving car be well on its way to turning into a global surveillance and snitching network?

Now, the future ahead

The police already equip ALPRs—automatic license plate recognizers—on their squad cards (71% of departments do, at least); your autonomous vehicle will have one built in. Teslas already have a way for your parked car to look around, and having it scan nearby faces and license plates isn’t science fiction, it’s reality. If random hackers can already do it, so can the government; they don’t even need compliance from corporations.

Ultimately, it’s just a matter of time before this becomes a feature rather than a bug security hole, and a slightly-longer matter of time before this becomes an entire network rather than something your car does just for you.

Ever rolled a stop sign when nobody is around? Your car will report that. Ever sped on an empty highway? Not anymore, unless you want to get snitched on.3 We already have precedent with insurance carriers offering discounts for putting their GPS tracker into your car; why not get the car itself involved? And let’s make other cars keep an eye on you, too, just for good measure.

Let’s get even more nefarious: why stop at car behavior? With object & facial recognition performing better than ever, dozens of high-quality cameras available—including 3D ones that sense depth—on a single car, and an always-on satellite Internet connection, the world is our oyster. Log, upload, and analyze everything! After all, when was the last time you did something without a car nearby?

Strolled by a shoe store? Ad ready in your next app.

On your way to work? Here’s a coffee shop recommendation.

Jaywalked? Reported.

Shoplifted? Straight to jail.

Attended a protest? Noted.

Out past curfew? Knock knock.

Existed? Location, time-of-day, outfit, and nearby company recorded.

I threw in shoplifting there on purpose: why wouldn’t we want to prevent crime? And yep, that’s exactly how they’ll sell it to us. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear… right?

Get ready for a world in which the ever-watchful eyes cameras on autonomous vehicles become a global police force. But at least we’ll be able to get drunk at the bar and make it home without calling a cab, right?


  1. Okay, okay, fine: it’s all capitalism at the end of the day, not an altruistic goal of “making our lives easier.” If there was no profit motive in out-playing your competition, there would be no innovation. But let’s pretend for a moment; this is about the future, after all… ↩︎

  2. Let’s not even talk about how Neuralink, a technology hoping to “help people with paralysis,” will bring about a cyberpunk dystopia separating those who can afford neurological implant enhancements from those who can’t. Hello, Deus Ex↩︎

  3. Get to your destination f a s t e r by bypassing those pesky traffic laws with Tesla’s Performance++™️ superpack. Set up your AutoPay account today! (powered by MasterCard©) ↩︎