Onboard Telematics and the Surveillance of Movement


Colin J. Bennettt (Canada), Priscilla Regan (USA) and Charles D. Raab (Scotland)


One of the most interesting and perhaps ambitious applications of geographic information technologies is the development of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) and mobile telematics. The range of applications for these technologies is extensive, and includes services such as the wireless provision of traffic information to drivers, automatic toll collection, law enforcement, the management of commercial vehicle fleets, environmental regulation and the provision of route and location information to the traveler. The technologies are viewed in many jurisdictions as a means of improving traffic control systems and highway safety, increasing the efficiency of commercial and public transport, and enabling safer and better informed travelers.

The application of these new technologies is therefore playing an increasing part in the relationship between business firms (e.g., car manufacturers, rental firms) and their customers. The use of vehicle telematics was introduced to the consumer market in 1996, when the Ford Motor Company unveiled the RESCU (Remote Emergency Satellite Cellular Unit) system in the Lincoln Continental. General Motors made their telematics system, OnStar, publicly available in 1997, and since then, BMW, Mercedes and Infiniti have introduced telematics devices developed by Motorola that are based on GPS and cellular communications systems. The Magellan Corporation has also developed a telematics system, NeverLost, that is gaining consumer and industry support; other branded systems are also being marketed. Vehicles have ceased to be simply a means of transport. They have become technologies in which a range of work and entertainment functions can be enjoyed, which can also process information about the outside world for the benefit of the consumer, and which can relay information about the vehicle and the driver to public safety and law enforcement agencies..

Although onboard telematics systems have been developed and applied by major vehicle manufacturers for the consumer market, their application to the car rental industry provides a particular fruitful subject for analysis. A well-publicised case involving a small car rental agency in the USA has recently brought these issues to the fore. The Acme car rental company, which used satellite technology to track and fine drivers $150 each time they exceeded a certain speed, was ordered by the state of Connecticut to cease the practice and pay back the fines it had collected.

This relatively minor case helps frame many of the issues that the introduction of global positioning technology to vehicles will raise. With these issues in mind, we begin to analyse the emerging practices of the larger car rental firms in the US, Canada and the UK (including Hertz, Avis, Thrifty, Europcar), which already offer onboard telematics-based ‘concierge services’ in their vehicles. Although there is little evidence that onboard telematic systems are currently being used by major firms for monitoring rental customers’ movements, the systems potentially allow an almost unparalleled level of tracking for commercial and regulatory purposes. The history of technology illustrates the prevalence of the development of new applications beyond the ones initially envisaged. By looking at the services available to car renters, we investigate the extent to which these further purposes are emerging, what sorts of data are currently and prospectively collected, to what extent the data would be of interest to public organisations such as law-enforcement agencies and emergency rescue services, and whether users of these systems could exert some choice or control over them. We consider how far the practice of renting a car, the role of the company, and the relationship between the renter and that company are being re-organised as a result of the introduction of location-based technologies. We also enquire into the way in which ITS and mobile telematics play a role in the re-organisation of some state functions in terms of increased capabilities of tracking physical movement and regulating the behaviour of people on the move. Finally, we examine the components of existing legal regimes in each country affect the deployment and marketing of these technologies.

Car rental companies also appear to be employing location-based systems for fleet management and theft control purposes. The technology augments their control and decreases their risks. We look at how risk categories are determined, asking whether certain customers are deemed riskier than others because of racial, gender, class and other factors. If – as the Acme case has demonstrated -speeding restrictions are included as contract provisions and companies impose fines on rental customers for violations, we consider whether such practices might foreshadow a privatisation of law-enforcement, or at least a closer co-operation between rental companies and the police regarding the surveillance of movement.

Thus, beyond concerns about the collection, use and disclosure of the personally-related information associated with onboard telematics systems, there are range of more theoretical issues that expose the dynamic nature of the relationship that is engaged in when one rents a vehicle. These include the intended and unintended consequences for power relations between public and private agencies, and individuals. On a higher level, we also enquire into the relationship between identity and place. How do these location-based systems mediate between both established and changing representations of individual and group identities, and of places? Our analysis of different companies in three different countries permits us to see whether these telematics developments are driven by larger socio-economic and technological forces that span national jurisdictions, or whether distinctive legal and institutional factors have a bearing on their development and application.