Auto Lenders Put Kill Switches Into Cars

That innocuous looking device (above) on the dashboard under the steering column is a new kind of kill switch, but this kill switch can actually take your car away from you, instead of letting you keep it.  Auto lenders are requiring these devices to be installed on cars purchased on credit from high risk borrowers.  If the borrower doesn’t pay on time, the lender can flip a switch remotely, and turn that car off.  Sounds crazy?  Yes, it does, but cars are getting smarter and so are the people who buy, sell and finance them.

Cars are definitely getting smarter, thanks to the computer industry.  Everyone knows that. Everyone knows that Google has cars on the road right now, driving Google executive to and from work, that are driving themselves, with no input required from the passengers. And BMW has just announced that it is sending autonomous vehicles to China to check on their performance there.

Progress, right? Maybe not, because it is beginning to look like cars are getting too smart for their owners’ good. Sometimes, too good to be true is too true to be good.  It all started when auto companies started installing computers in their vehicles to managing the increasing number of electrical devices that run them. Once the computers were on board, the car makers started coming up with more ways to use them, initially using the computers to monitor the vehicle’s health and identify problems that required a mechanic’s attention. As the cellular telephone revolution kicked into high gear, anti-theft devices were developed that could be secreted in a vehicle with the capacity to lead police directly to the location where a stolen car could be found, a net gain for the police, the insurance companies, and car owners alike.

Learning from the free enterprise system, car makers began engineering the same capabilities into their onboard diagnostic systems, giving hapless owners who have locked themselves out of the vehicles an easy way to get the car doors unlocked remotely. The same system can even start your car for you from a remote location if you can’t find your keys….but what can be started remotely can also be turned off remotely, and that’s what’s happening now. Some car makers, when informed that a properly equipped car has been stolen, can simply turn the car off remotely, keeping the doors locked, and trapping the car thieves in the vehicle until the police arrive.

One unpopular embellishment to the car control system is a remote alcohol sensor that some states require drivers convicted of driving under the influence to install in their vehicles. In this case, in order to start their cars, these drivers have to blow into a device that determines whether they have been drinking, and refuses to start the car, if they have an excessive blood alcohol level.

That is probably a good thing. Everyone would be safer if drunks were prevented from driving, except that it is quite easy for the driver to defeat the detection system by having someone else blow into the device. This raises the question of why a sober person would let a drunk one drive them around in a car, and indicates the ease with which some technologies can be circumvented. (The answer, by the way, is that the sober person doesn’t know how to drive.)

Other technologies have been added to the car’s control systems, including monitors that enable companies with commercial vehicle fleets and parents with newly licensed teenagers in their families to monitor the locations and driving habits of the people driving their vehicles, creating a definite “Big Brother is watching” pattern to the modern driving experience.

Soon, toll booths will become another thing of the past, as vehicles leave their electronic signatures behind whenever they merge onto or exit from a highway, allowing the state to bill them for the distance traveled. It hasn’t happened yet but, soon, law enforcement will be able to use the same devices to determine how FAST you were going from Point A to Point B, and to write you an irrefutable ticket based on the speed the system clocked you at.

Now, in what is probably the final irony in this vein, auto lenders are getting into the act by installing their own devices on mortgaged vehicles that allows them to shut the vehicles off if the owner is more than 30 days late on their car installment loans. While some stories have surfaced about cars turning themselves off while been driven, the lenders insist that the system cannot be activated on a moving vehicle.

Some police departments are now equipped with “car killers” that can remotely shock an automobile’s electronic system into cardiac arrest in order to enable the cops to arrest fleeing fugitives without engaging in dangerous hot pursuits, but that is a line of sight device that enables the police officers to choose the most opportune moment to shut down a fleeing vehicle.

Once these devices have been mandated for all vehicles, the police would be able to use them to stop any vehicle at their discretion, unless the plates had been changed, because it’s hard to read the VIN number on a moving vehicle. Police in hot pursuit is one thing. That makes sense, but a lender shutting down a vehicle for a late payment is something else again, because it could constitute an abridgment of the borrower’s rights. Most states give lenders the right to repossess a vehicle without warrant or notice but, in most states, the repossession agents do not have the right to remove the driver from the vehicle, yet a vehicle shut down without notice with the driver in it could be construed as such.  It might even be construed as kidnapping.

Anyone purchasing a vehicle with an auto loan, or even leasing a car, should now be aware that missing a single payment can cause significant issues for the owner of the vehicle. File this one under: lawsuits brewing.


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