Police will be able to remotely halt high-speed pursuits with technology being unveiled Tuesday that aims to cut chase-related deaths.
General Motors GM plans to equip 1.7 million of its 2009 model vehicles with the system that allows pursuing officers to request that engines of stolen cars be remotely switched off through the OnStar mobile communications system.
The system, scheduled to be demonstrated Tuesday in Washington, D.C., marks a big move toward reducing what GM says are as many as 9,600 pursuits around the country every year. Up to 400 people die in accidents involving chases, according PursuitWatch.org, an activist group.
"Anytime you have the ability to shut down a dangerous pursuit, that's a win for everyone," says Geoffrey Alpert, criminology professor at the University of South Carolina.
Because of a built-in global-tracking device, OnStar already allows police to find stolen vehicles. Now, with permission of the owner, they'll have the ability to have the engine turned off.
Police will only be allowed to ask for a shutdown when they have a vehicle in sight. An OnStar operator will inform fleeing suspects that the engine is about to stopped, which can then occur in seconds. Brakes and power steering will still function, says OnStar President Chet Huber.
"This isn't a science project. We are broadly deploying this technology," he says.
OnStar will maintain its privacy policies. Among other things, the system isn't supposed to let police use the system on an OnStar owner without their permission.
OnStar is free for GM owners for the first year after they purchase a new vehicle. Car owners then must pay for the service. OnStar says about 60% pay the fee to continue service.
Having enough vehicle owners participating could be problem, says Sid Heal, a commander in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "Until we get enough market saturation, it won't even occur to us to anticipate it," Heal says.
Such a system has been talked about for years, but law enforcement experts want all manufacturers to participate.
For years, some departments have caught car thieves using "bait" cars rigged with transmitters that allow them to be tracked and shut down remotely if they're stolen, says Maj. Tim Fitch of the St. Louis County, Mo., Police Department.
PursuitWatch.org President John Phillips says GM's system shows potential so "we don't have to play Russian roulette with police officers and the public."