Bad news for joy riders: Our days are numbered. Some day soon we'll take the car out to "get groceries," with the usual side trips along the way to the music store, the espresso joint, the computer store, the pub. (Why not? It's 1 p.m. already.) When we come home three hours later, we'll find the Spouse holding up a printout that looks like one of those Family Circus cartoons, where Billy leaves a dotted line all over the neighborhood on his way to picking up a quart of milk on the next block. In this case, the dotted line is the path of our supposed grocery trip, and we are busted.
The company supplying this evil, marriage-destroying technology is a San Diego-based startup called Networkcar, which gave me a demo of their product, installed in a late-model Ford Taurus. Networkcar's $995 black box mounts out of sightunder a car's dashboard. It sports one antenna for receiving GPS positioning signals and another for transmitting data over Cingular's wireless network (the same network used by Blackberry PDAs). A third wire jacks into a standard ODB II online diagnostics port that's been built into most U.S.-sold cars since 1996 and is used by mechanics to do smog certification and other tests. Every two minutes, the box reports the car's position to Networkcar's database servers. Diagnostic data is uploaded every 20 minutes.
Once the hardware is installed on a new or used car by one of Networkcar's auto-dealer partners, you (or your impatient other at home) can log into a password-protected Web page at networkcar.com to check your car's current temperature, gas mileage, emissions control, or its location and velocity via GPS. The site will even plot a history of your driving speeds. Networkcar reps say the technology has led to the recovery of at least one stolen vehicle already, and a future enhancement will e-mail you if your car leaves your neighborhood. After the $1,000 entrance fee, the service is free for the first year and $9.95 per month afterward.
If you can get past the initial shock of realizing your moves are being tracked to the nearest 20 or 30 feet, the benefits may be worth it. In California, Networkcar will automatically mail your biannual smog certificate to the state, saving you a trip to the mechanic at registration renewal time. The company hasn't gotten approval for that service from other states yet, but the device will at least tell you if you're up to spec before you get to the testing site. It will also e-mail you when your engine starts to misbehave—letting you know that it's time for an oil change or that your emission-control system's oxygen sensors are malfunctioning—with alerts that are much more helpful than that "service engine soon" light on the dashboard.
Car-tracking devices have been around for years, but Networkcar's innovation over the GM OnStar model is to put the information directly into the consumers' hands via the Web, rather than just displaying it to a customer dispatcher at a remote location. Networkcar lacks some of OnStar's more advanced features, such as the latter's built-in speakerphone on which an operator will call you if your air bag deploys. But like OnStar, Networkcar can dispatch roadside assistance to your precise location, and the Web site's level of detail makes the FedEx package tracker seem quaint.
Networkcar will no doubt be viewed as another Big Brother-ish intrusion at first. GPS units in cars have already been the focus of more than one controversy, including a Connecticut rental agency that billed customers for speeding based on the log from their in-car GPS navigation systems. Privacy advocates already worry that John Ashcroft will be logging into your account, and it seems inevitable that the company's logs will be subpoenaed in divorce cases to prove (or disprove) infidelity.
But for non-cheating husbands, being able to skip last-minute smog-test outings (plus using the nearest browser to look up where exactly we parked) seems well worth the privacy trade-off, especially once the initial price comes down. Our worst-case scenario will be having to confess we took the scenic route home.