GM China's licence plate texting app raises safety, privacy concerns

GM China developing device that would allow users to contact drivers of other cars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 3:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 August, 2014, 3:30am

Ever returned to your parked car to find it boxed in with no way of escaping or contacting the other car's owner? Maybe you spotted an attractive woman or man zooming by you on the highway and wished there was a way of contacting them? A new app being developed by GM China would allow users to text drivers of other cars by snapping photos of their licence plates.

John Du, director of GM's China Science Lab, gave the above two examples when he demonstrated DiDi Plate at the Telematics Detroit 2014 conference in June. Users wishing to contact the driver of another car simply photograph the vehicle's licence plate and upload it to a central identification server; the app will then connect them with the driver's phone and enable them to send text messages.

"Even if the other driver didn't register this app, you can still give them greetings and comments," Du said.

In China, licence plates are issued by the Vehicle Management Office, under the Ministry of Public Security, and are strictly rationed in many major cities in order to cut down on emissions. Du didn't explain how the app links a licence plate to a phone number or what happens if the person on the receiving end doesn't want to get messages from creepy guys while she's driving to work.

Privacy concerns aside, the app raises a rather obvious safety issue by giving drivers another reason to look at their phones while behind the wheel, at a time when lawmakers in the US and Europe are cracking down on texting while driving.

In China, there are more than 220,000 road traffic deaths every year, according to Bloomberg Global Road Safety.

Former GM chairman Dan Ackerman has spoken out against using a phone while driving. "To me, there's nothing scarier than a texting driver looking down at his handset," he said during an address at the Boston CEO Club last year. Ackerman said the company's OnStar infotainment system was aimed at "keeping drivers' eyes on the road". GM began rolling out OnStar - which includes hands-free calling, turn-by-turn navigation, and in-vehicle security - to the Chinese market in 2009, and the company says it has more than 600,000 subscribers. It is unclear whether DiDi Plate only works with OnStar registered vehicles, or if the app has access to the national license plate registration database. (GM ignored a request to comment for this article.)

GM is working with Apple to develop a hands-free infotainment system based on the computer giant's Siri voice-recognition system. "The point is to not distract the driver," a GM spokesperson told Ars Technica last year. "The system is designed to limit Siri to spoken interaction. Anything that would take your eyes off the road would be bad."