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Rental driver finds Big Brother over shoulder

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- An ordinary trip turned into an Orwellian ordeal for one Connecticut driver, forced to pay multiple fines after a car rental company tracked his every move via satellite.

James Turner of New Haven took Acme car rental company to court, calling the technology too intrusive. Acme countered that Turner knew the risks. Regardless, the litigation has such an unexpected high-tech spin that the state attorney general joined the legal fray.

When Turner needed a van to drive from New Haven to Virginia some months ago for business, he turned to a merchant near his home that he had relied on many times in the past.

But the theater box office manager overlooked a clause in the contract stating that its vehicles were equipped with a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system and that going over the speed limit would cost $150 per infraction.

How does GPS work? Click here for an interactive explainer  

When he returned home and tried to use his ATM card, he discovered that the rental company had taken out $450 from his account. Acme Rent-A-Car had determined that he had gone over the speed limit three times and dipped into his account for each one.

"They took the money out before I returned the car," Turner told CNN this week. "I was very, very surprised. I was not aware of what GPS could do. I thought it was an onboard navigation system, to use when you get lost."

High-tech tracking

The van was outfitted with more than standard GPS technology. It had a much more sophisticated monitoring system, AirIQ, which allowed Acme to check Turner's speed and location.

Turner hired a lawyer and went to small claims court, but Acme said Turner was well aware of the contract provisions.

"I don't think it was too intrusive. The warning is printed in big bold letters on top of the contract, saying any sustained speeds over 79 mph would be subject to fines," said Max Brunswick, Acme's attorney.

"It's not something that's in the fine print. It's explained to the customer and the customer has to initial it," he said.

Bernadette Keyes, Turner's counsel, countered that while some Acme customer contracts did include a specific speed limit, the one her client signed did not.

Making money or tracking cars?

Turner protested that the company had no system of due process by which he could challenge the charges. Brunswick said that for each infraction, the satellite system notified Acme only after Turner had gone over 80 mph for at least two minutes.

"The real purpose is not to make money from people speeding. The real reason is to track cars," Brunswick said.

The monitoring system allows Acme to find cars that are not returned, a persistent problem that can drive small car rental companies out of business, he said.

Moreover, drivers knowing their speed is being checked tend to drive slower, leading to less liability for the company and fewer accidents for the drivers, according to Brunswick.

"It's safe to say this policy saves lives," he said.

The state has stepped in to help settle the legal morass, leaving the small claims case in limbo.

"The court is waiting for the consumer protection board and attorney general to make their ruling," which could come within weeks, Turner said.

• AirIQ Inc.

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