Wine Vending Machines: A Technology Kludge for Bad Laws

Last Updated Jul 13, 2010 2:11 PM EDT

Taking the term boxed wine to another level, Pennsylvania's new wine vending machines are an attempt to solve the age-old problem of underage drinking with new technology. Alcohol abuse and drinking minors are both serious problems, but Pennsylvania's new wine machines show the ugly side of technology: Less solutions and more ham-fisted bureaucracy.

Here's how the magical wine machine works:

  • Slide the driver's license into the machine
  • Look into the attached camera
  • A person in a remote location verifies the face with the ID
  • Blow into a breathalyzer
  • Buy as much wine as desired
The state is running two test machines and, based on feedback, will spread the wine boxes to 100 locations throughout Pennsylvania. As Paula Forbes of Eater notes, the wine machine is an attempt to circumvent Pennsylvania's old-school liquor laws. Similar to South Carolina and other states in the Bible Belt, Pennsylvania only allows liquor sales through state-owned stores. The machines exploit a loophole in the law.

These new automats aren't really automats, though. There's actually a camera that connects to a remote center. At the other end is a correspondent that will confirm the purchaser's age. In other words, the alcohol purchase must still be approved by a human on the other end every time.

Here are some alternatives:

  • Facial recognition software: Why not have the potential purchaser stand in front of the camera and have facial recognition software confirm his or her identity based on the license picture? The human interaction is not only wasted resources, but looks like a passive aggressive way to confirm sobriety -- something that is supposedly done by the breathalyzer. Facial recognition isn't perfect, but it is a much more reasonable solution for the vending machines than a person sitting on the other end of a camera.
  • Renovate the program: Infamous for its streetside beer vending machines, Japan now gives out magnetic strips that, when placed on IDs, allows customers to confirm their identity. The strips are placed on the ID after age has been confirmed. Pennsylvania has spent money on the machines, but hasn't come up with an elegant solution to identity.
  • Just change the law: Other states allow sales of wine -- not to mention hard liquor -- in grocery stores. They have come up with other solutions, like not selling through groceries on the weekend or after a certain hour.
Photo courtesy of gromgull Related: