“You can’t just eyeball it to determine who is going in there illegally or legally,” says Jeff Caldwell, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. “You need an automated system that can operate day and night, independently, in all kinds of weather.”
Caldwell says that his agency is working with Fluor-Transurban, a joint venture between two multinational highway-building firms, to create the toll roads. Jennifer Aument, a spokeswoman for Fluor-Transurban in New York, confirms that her company is interested in the Dtect system.
“We are at the beginning point, but we see promise in that,” she says. “It needs intense and rigorous review. The hope is that this technology would be able to distinguish between a human, say, and a dog.”
Still, Caldwell says, “We have not capitulated to that as the appropriate technology.” Early word that Virginia was even discussing an infrared system for counting passengers, he says, prompted immediate privacy concerns among residents and their state representatives.
“Our people want to know how this fits with privacy worries, and how enforceable it will be,” Caldwell says. “This is a really cutting-edge project, and there are a lot of uncertainties.”
Ballantyne is aware of the privacy fears and says that Dtect can be programmed to scramble or obscure people’s faces. In prototype testing, he says, the system was able to superimpose a green circle over passengers’ faces. And the images themselves, he notes, are gray scale and not useful for identification purposes. “When we export the image of the number of persons in the car, we make it so it is impossible to identify the faces,” he says. “And of course if someone was hiding in the boot, we wouldn’t be able to detect them.”
As for good old-fashioned dummies in the car, “it gets the headlines, but it is very rare,” Ballantyne says. “People really do have a lot of better things to do with their lives.”