It seems we can’t find what you’re looking for. Perhaps searching, or one of the links below, can help.
While you may think of your car as little more than a convenient mode of transportation, to automotive engineers it is also a sophisticated data-collection device. With literally dozens of internal sensors that generate diagnostic and performance data for virtually every aspect of its operation, your car is essentially a computer on wheels. Indeed, many of the advances we’ve enjoyed in auto safety over recent decades, from air bags to emergency brake assist, are possible precisely because of our cars’ ability to monitor their internal systems. Vehicle speed, daily mileage, seatbelt usage, and braking behavior are just some of the data your car routinely collects, alongside diagnostic checks of things like emissions and transmission performance.
In the majority of vehicles on the road today, this data remains within the physical confines of the car itself. It is accessible only through on-board event data recorders (EDRs), which manufacturers have been voluntarily installing for many years, or standardized diagnostic ports, which were mandated by the federal government in 1996. The means of accessing this type of information are changing significantly, however, as automakers, app developers, and wireless carriers explore ways to leverage your car’s data in an expanding portfolio of communication services. Larry Webster, Editor-in-Chief of Road Track magazine, says the auto industry is on the cusp of “an explosion in car connectivity as executives view the car-to-cloud data pipeline as a way to add value.” In 2014, both Audi and GM will be releasing cars that offer, for the first time, built-in 4G LTE broadband connections. Powered by the same communications technology found in smartphones, these cars will use wireless carriers like ATT to provide real-time updates of navigation services, as well as access to streaming video content, Internet radio, and social-media apps. In addition, the cars will serve as traveling Wi-Fi hotspots, supporting up to eight mobile devices at a time. Welcome to the era of the connected car.
While 4G hotspot capability may be a new twist, the connected car has been around, in various implementations, for some time now. GM subsidiary OnStar has been a pioneer in connectivity, offering wireless communication of both voice and car data since 1995. Conceived with safety features at the forefront, like emergency assistance, diagnostic updates, and hands-free navigation, OnStar’s subscription service now features mobile apps that allow you to start your car remotely and track your vehicle’s location. Other major automakers offer similar services of their own. And highlighting the obvious appeal that car data has for the insurance industry, Progressive Progressive, like other companies, has an opt-in program that lets drivers provide the insurer with direct access to car-generated records of their driving behavior, in exchange for potential discounts on policy premiums.
It’s no surprise that privacy advocates have concerns over this accelerating trend towards collecting, transmitting, and storing car data. Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst at the ACLU, acknowledges that while there could be many beneficial uses for data emanating from your automobile, the issue of data ownership is a crucial one. “Companies have such strong incentives to collect data on their customers,” he says, “but the data in your car should belong to you just like the data on your laptop belongs to you.” The question of ownership, however, is still largely an open one. Only 14 states in the U.S. have passed legislation preventing the retrieval of data from EDRs without the car owner’s approval (exceptions for court orders, emergency care and vehicle repair are common). And EDRs are typically understood to be capturing only a fraction of the information that car companies are collecting. Wireless communications systems, like those that offer navigation services and live operator assistance can record vehicle location, time of travel and destination search history, among other data. A GM spokesperson confirmed that the car performance and diagnostic data transmitted via the OnStar network is retained in a manner that is, “specific to the subscriber and their vehicle,” but declined to provide details on how long this user-identifiable data is stored.
None of the privacy advocates I’ve spoken with believe that an overly prescriptive legislative approach is desirable for such rapidly evolving technology. But they all point out that car-generated data holds obvious value for third parties. The opt-in approach for customer consent has practical limitations, since no one reads lengthy terms of service or privacy statements before clicking the Accept button. And it’s a fair question as to whether informed consent is even possible, because while the benefits of the services on offer are very clear, the ramifications of relinquishing your data are usually not. “I don’t think the public has a sense of what they’re giving up in terms of privacy,” says Dorothy Glancy, law professor at Santa Clara University and noted authority on privacy and transportation law. She argues that legally enforceable standards over what data is collected and how it’s collected are crucial. In the current climate of continuing NSA revelations, Glancy notes that, “People tend to have doubts as to whether restrictions on data after it has been collected can actually work. Clearly, the less data that is stored, the better.”
One possible compromise between data collection and user privacy lies in disassociating the car data from the individual. Christopher Wolf, Co-Chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington think-tank supported by Silicon Valley heavyweights like Google and Facebook, says, “Most data collectors recognize that the best way to safeguard privacy is to anonymize the data.” Anonymous data, while less attractive to marketers, has many beneficial uses. Glancy notes that, “For transportation safety purposes, you don’t need personally identifiable data in the first place. If we have a system where car sensors can detect the presence of other cars around them, and there are two vehicles about to switch into the same lane simultaneously, it doesn’t matter who’s in those cars, only that the cars don’t collide.” You could make the same argument for public infrastructure purposes like studying traffic patterns in order to build more efficient roadways.
But the anonymous-data solution begins to fall apart when you introduce the infotainment systems, and the attendant apps that 4G-enabled cars, with their faster data speeds, can bring to the table. Customers searching for a good song to hear, gravitate towards apps that personalize the experience. If you’re an Al Green lover, you probably don’t want to hear a Metallica track. And if you want to carry your taste in entertainment from your connected car back to your office computer, the data, on some level, has to be linked back to you.
But let’s suppose that you’re fine with almost any privacy trade-offs that will allow to check your tire pressure remotely, push navigation directions to your car before leaving the house, or avoid hearing a Celine Dion ballad. When the car is the hotspot, your passengers may be forced to give up anonymity as well. Will they have to weigh privacy concerns against your offer of a ride to the beach? If your riding companion logs in to your car’s hotspot with their phone, the resulting data may make it possible to know not just where you are, but who you’re with.
I’d argue that most of us have fairly clear notions of privacy when we get in our cars and close the door. It seems obvious that the promised functionality of the connected car comes into direct conflict with at least some of them. Further complicating matters is that the ways of monetizing data are ever-evolving and highly dependent on the emergence of new technologies to analyze data in real-time. The information we are generating may turn out to have value far beyond what we can perceive today. How much of it are we comfortable giving away? Should we be compensated for it? Should we be expected to pay a premium to keep it private?
There are no simple answers. Innovations in data collection and analysis do carry the promise of safer roadways with less congestion and faster access to assistance in case of emergency. The connected car skews the equation even further by bringing convenience and entertainment to the forefront, making it all too easy to ignore the privacy costs. What we need in the near-term is public dialog about just what we’re being asked to relinquish. This, of course, is where legislators can play an effective role. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) recently wrote to automakers asking them for details on protections against consumer privacy and security.
Where this ends up, we can only guess. But it seems likely that before long, those movie scenes where two cars pull up in a deserted parking lot to secretly exchange sensitive information will appear as out of date as Ron Burgundy’s polyester suits.