Most people have probably never heard of the agency, called the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office. And they haven't heard of its plans to add another dimension to our national road system, one that uses tracking and sensor technology to erase the lines between cars, the road and the government transportation management centers from which every aspect of transportation will be observed and managed.
For 13 years, a powerful group of car manufacturers, technology companies and government interests has fought to bring this system to life. They envision a future in which massive databases will track the comings and goings of everyone who travels by car or mass transit. The only way for people to evade the national transportation tracking system they're creating will be to travel on foot. Drive your car, and your every movement could be recorded and archived. The federal government will know the exact route you drove to work, how many times you braked along the way, the precise moment you arrived -- and that every other Tuesday you opt to ride the bus.
They'll know you're due for a transmission repair and that you've neglected to fix the ever-widening crack that resulted from a pebble dinging your windshield.
Once the system is brought to life, both the corporations and the government stand to reap billions in revenues. Companies plan to use the technology to sell endless user services and upgrades to drivers. For governments, tracking cars' movements means the ability to tax drivers for their driving habits, and ultimately to use a punitive tax system to control where they drive and when, a practice USDOT documents predict will be common throughout the country by 2022.
This system the government and its corporate partners are striving to create goes by many names, including the information superhighway and the Integrated Network of Transportation information, or INTI. Reams of federal documents spell out the details of how it will operate.
Despite this, it remains one of the federal government's best-kept secrets. Virtually nothing has been reported about it in the media. None of the experts at the privacy rights groups Creative Loafing talked to, including the ACLU, the Consumers Union and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, had ever heard of the INTI. Nor had they heard of the voluminous federal documents that spell out, in eerie futuristic tones, what data the system will collect and how it will impact drivers' daily lives.
Buried inside two key federal documents lies a chilling cookbook for a Big Brother-style transportation-monitoring system. None of the privacy experts we talked to was aware of a 2002 USDOT document called the "National Intelligent Transportation Systems Program Plan: A Ten-Year Vision" or the "National ITS Architecture ITS Vision Statement," published by the Federal Highway Administration in 2003.
What's more, no one we talked to was aware of just how far the USDOT has come in developing the base technology necessary to bring the system to life.
More than $4 billion in federal tax dollars has already been spent to lay the foundation for this system. Some of the technologies it will use to track our movements are already familiar to the public, like the GPS technology OnStar already used to pinpoint the location of its subscribers. Others are currently being developed by the USDOT and its sub-agencies.
Five technology companies hired by the USDOT to develop the transceivers, or "on-board units," that will transmit data from your car to the system are expected to unveil the first models next spring. By 2010, automakers hope to start installing them in cars. The goal is to equip 57 million vehicles by 2015.
Once the devices are installed, the technology will allow cars to talk to each other in real time, transmitting information about weather, dangerous road conditions ahead and even warning drivers instantaneously of an impending collision. When used in combination with GPS technology already being installed in millions of cars, the INTI will be able to transmit real-time information about where your car is and where you've been.
Though Joint Project Office officials refused to talk to Creative Loafing about the next step in their plan, one official defined it simply in a presentation before the National Research Council in January.
"The concept," said Bill Jones, Technical Director of the Joint Office, "is that vehicle manufacturers will install a communications device on the vehicle starting at some future date, and equipment will be installed on the nation's transportation system to allow all vehicles to communicate with the infrastructure."