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Analytical Chemistry


Balloons Fly in Deptford, System Tracks Rental Cars, Voice Stress Reveals Lies

by K. M. REESE
July 12, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 28

Balloons fly in Deptford

Thomas P. Garrett Jr. writes from Pitman, N.J., that he was surprised to find that the first balloon flight in the U.S. was not mentioned in the story about Joseph L. Gay-Lussac’s ballooning exploits (C&EN, June 21, page 56). The flight, he says, occurred during the same period when the Europeans were bobbing about.

The first balloon flight in the U.S., Garrett says, was conducted on Jan. 9, 1793, by Jean-Pierre François Blanchard in a hot-air balloon, “contrary to what North Carolinians claim,” he adds obscurely. Blanchard’s flight began in what is now downtown Philadelphia, and the balloon landed in what is now Deptford, N.J. The dignitaries who observed the launching included President George Washington. Garrett says Deptford “commemorates the occasion each year with hot-air balloon flights.”

System tracks rental cars

As many as 25% of rental cars in the U.S. are equipped with tracking gear, according to the July/August issue of AAA World, published by the American Automobile Association. Author Nino Padova reports that the gear “allows rental companies to check on their vehicles’ exact speed, location, and direction, or even to disable the vehicle from thousands of miles away, with the simple point-and-click of a mouse.”

The system that makes this possible, AAA World says, is called telematics. It combines wireless communications, vehicle monitoring systems, and satellite-based GPS (global positioning system) tracking. If a car rental company decides to use telematics, as a rule, the company installs telematics in the entire fleet—in other words, you can’t rent a car without it.

Telematics can be costly for drivers who violate their rental agreements, AAA World says. Behavior that can foul you up includes speeding, driving on unpaved roads, and crossing state lines. A rental car company in San Francisco, for example, charges $1.00 per mile for mileage driven outside of California.

Rental car companies, Padova advises, don’t necessarily advertise their telematics. They’re interested merely in finding stolen cars and catching renters who violate their rental contracts. Renters who are concerned about telematics need only ask the rental agent, who should tell you if your car is so equipped. Padova says also that “small, independent rental agencies that offer too-good-to-be-true deals tend to use the technology.”

Voice stress reveals lies

Analysis of the voice for stress has been growing steadily more popular in the lie-detection business, says reporter Douglas Heingartner in the July 1 New York Times.

The traditional lie detector, or polygraph, requires that the testee be hooked up to equipment that measures physiological reactions to questions, such as perspiration and blood pressure. These clues are then interpreted for veracity.

Voice-stress analysis, on the other hand, requires no hookup to the testee. The gear need only “hear” the speaker’s voice. The principle, Heingartner reports, “is that the human voice contains telltale signals that betray a speaker’s emotional state, like the intent to deceive. By analyzing small, often inaudible changes in the voice and visually displaying them on a computer screen, the techniques are thought to recognize not only veracity, but also a gamut of emotions ranging from anxiety to arousal.”

Voice-stress analysis has been around since the late 1980s, Heingartner reports, and has grown more popular with improvements in the computer software it depends on. The method has spread beyond law enforcement on account of its anonymity. Heingartner says it’s used “in everything from telemarketing to matchmaking.” Insurance companies in Britain, for example, are using the method to screen claims made by telephone.

The reliability of voice-stress analysis remains debatable, however, Heingartner reports. Also, the system raises concerns about privacy because the speaker being checked out need not know it’s happening. Reliability and privacy issues would arise, for instance, if an applicant for an insurance policy had previously been labeled dubious by voice-stress analysis.


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