What Would Big Brother Drive?

By Charles Krome

This column is dedicated to Autosavant reader Mark in AZ.

Have you ever seen a truck like the one in the accompanying picture? Because if so, you can be pretty sure it’s seen you—a lot of you.

What looks like a mild-mannered Mercedes-Benz Sprinter is actually an AS&E Z Backscatter Van. Or, as the cool kids call it, a ZBV. It’s essentially one of those airport x-ray imaging things on wheels. Neat, huh?

American Science & Engineering, the company that builds the ZBV, describes it as “a low-cost, extremely maneuverable screening system built into a commercially available delivery van.” I didn’t see a spec sheet on the AS&E website, but it appears that standard content includes, “patented Z Backscatter technology, which reveals contraband that transmission X-rays miss—such as explosives and plastic weapons—and provides photo-like imaging for rapid analysis. The ZBV is also capable of identifying low levels of radioactivity from both gamma rays and neutrons with optional Radioactive Threat Detection (RTD) technology.” In other words, “The ZBV is ideal for counterterrorism applications, as it can detect dirty bombs and nuclear WMD, in addition to conventional explosives.”

Of course, the most important question about this vehicle’s capabilities is this: Can it be used to see people naked? That’s an interesting question that Forbes.com’s Andy Greenberg discussed in his blog, which is where I first found out about the ZBV. Greenberg interviewed AS&E’s vice president of marketing, Joe Reiss, and turned up some interesting factoids. For example, when it comes to personal privacy, Greenberg writes that, “Reiss counters privacy critics by pointing out that the ZBV scans don’t capture nearly as much detail of human bodies as their airport counterparts.”

That’s not exactly reassuring, and this, directly from the AS&E site, doesn’t help: “In Stationary Scan Mode, ZBV operators may elect to scan the occupants of the subject vehicle. For this application, AS&E offers a Personnel Scanning option that may better enable the customer to meet any applicable country-specific regulatory requirements.” To me, this says the ZBV operators can probably get a nice eye-full.

After all, when it comes to this technology, AS&E’s Reiss explicitly told Greenberg: “We do what our customers need.” And just to be clear here—so to speak—Greenberg also writes that Reiss told him “law enforcement agencies have also deployed the vans to search for vehicle-based bombs in the U.S.”

And here’s the real beauty part. Although Greenberg just wrote about the ZBV a few days ago, it’s obvious from a spin around the web that these things have been around since (at least) 2007.

I’m just glad this technology is safely in the hands of our government.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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3 Comments

  1. Aw man, If I have to line my Mustang with lead sheets that’s going to wreck my gas mileage. 😉

  2. I am not happy about this at all. I am paranoid already, and this certainly does not make me less so.

  3. Yes they could get an eyeful I suppose….but only in B&W….when it is so easy to get full colour no imagination required video porn for free on the interweb…whilst driving in your car or ZBV…then such concerns seems…overstated.

    Reckon there’d be a new market for concealed messaging inside your car panels targeting the ZBV operator though…

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