Technology targets car chases

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Regardless of harsh punishments and terribly low success rates, people still run from the police. Patrol-car chases may be a staple of today’s action movies and make for good reality shows on Court TV, but all too often, they damage property and police cars, and injure innocent bystanders. There are more than 30,000 police chases every year, resulting in more than 300 deaths and 7,500 injuries.

General Motors announced recently that nearly 2 million of its 2009 models will be equipped with a new version of OnStar that will allow police departments to disable vehicles’ engines. OnStar already had GPS capabilities, so police have been able to locate not only stolen vehicles, but also vehicles that have gotten away during a chase.

With this new model of OnStar, police will determine if a car is equipped with OnStar once they begin chasing the car. If the vehicle is so equipped, the police will request that OnStar disable the vehicle.

OnStar will then send an electronic signal to the car, much like the one it would send to unlock car doors, except this signal interfaces with the car’s drive train. An OnStar representative’s voice will then come through the car’s stereo speakers notifying the driver that the vehicle is being stopped at the request of law enforcement officers and to pull over to the side of the road and surrender. The engine will keep running, the power steering and brakes will still work, but the car will be unable to accelerate, resulting in it being forced to coast to a safe stop.

The system is designed to cut down the number of police chases that put the police, those on the run, and other drivers in danger. Because of public safety issues, police are often ordered to back off from chases when going through heavily populated areas.

Several groups are protesting OnStar, saying that it is an invasion of privacy. OnStar’s onboard computer collects data such as location, speed and time.

Consumers fear that this data, when in the hands of an insurance agency, will be used against them to void a claim because they were driving recklessly or breaking the speed limit.

To date, this consumer concern has been trivial because OnStar’s collected data has not been used to deny claims or issue citations.

General Motors also states that customers will have the option of opting out of the police disable feature when purchasing new cars, but they claim that their research indicates 95 percent of customers would want to take advantage of the feature. Most customers would rather have their stolen vehicle slowly stopped than wrapped around a tree even if it means giving up a small piece of their privacy when driving.

Subscribers may even be able to receive a break on their car insurance by having the system in their car.

Currently, OnStar is exclusive to GM vehicles. OnStar hopes to break its exclusivity contract with GM and install its new system in different makes of cars, not only expanding its business but also making the roads safer.

If OnStar is able to expand to other auto manufacturers, or if a competitor comes in with a similar universal system, these dangerous and often fatal police chases could be a thing of the past.