What Does Your Car Know About You, and Will It Share Your Secrets?

Jun 16, 2017 5:34am

connected carWith the rise of self-driving cars, we’re likely to see another technology milestone for the automobile. Past driving advancements offered ease, safety and convenience. So, too, will autonomous technology, while greatly reducing the frequency and severity of crashes, decongesting traffic and allowing those with restrictive health issues to operate a vehicle.

With innovation, however, comes concerns, as self-driving cars rely heavily on massive volumes of data – not to mention, they collect some of it from you, the driver. Who is charged with overseeing the exchange all of this information? With whom is it shared, and why?

What data are connected cars collecting?

Self-driving cars depend on large data sets, without which they can’t function. In-car sensors collect and share massive amounts of information about a vehicle’s speed, direction and braking status, in addition to detecting other cars, road debris, traffic signals, pedestrians and more. This kind of granular information allows vehicles to navigate complex roadways and terrain down to the nearest inch, respond to impending dangers and/or alert drivers of mechanical problems.

In the same way that social media networks and/or shopping sites monitor and learn about customers to provide a more customized experience, in-car sensors accumulate raw data about where consumers live and drive, times of day at which they travel, routes they take, locations they frequent and occupants in the vehicle. This type of information is coveted by businesses and hackers alike. It’s therefore not surprising that experts predict the value of data to soon outshine the value of vehicles themselves.

Who has access to this data?

The rich user profiles afforded by dataset collection are met with both awe and fear – the latter of which surrounds the distribution of user info to third-party companies. Consumers have learned to ask how usage data is managed and shared within a company and with its partners to avoid onslaughts of marketing materials (and more egregious invasions of privacy).

In March, the Senate voted to repeal internet privacy rules that would have required internet service providers (ISPs) to get user consent before distributing browsing data to third parties. Given that more types of devices are connecting to the internet than ever before (most prominently, the automobile), a resolution in favor of this repeal may set an unsettling precedent. Businesses are willing to pay top dollar for such valuable insights extracted from user data, by which they can unlock new consumer segments. In essence, data is a form of currency. According to a September 2016 report by McKinsey & Co., vehicle data will be worth $750 billion by the year 2030.

Israeli startup Otonomo, has begun to tap into this, collecting and structuring vehicle-accrued data and selling it to businesses. Although this practice complies with the Driver Privacy Act of 2015 (which requires providers to get customer permission to share data), consumers may unwittingly consent to the distribution of their personal information when they sign terms and agreement forms upon vehicle purchase.

How else is personal data being shared?

Tesla, a major player in the self-driving race, has been known to distribute tidbits of data logs to both the press and law enforcement to defend the integrity of their product following collisions. These logs show whether the driver’s hands had been on the steering wheel, what self-driving systems were active at the time and whether or not they’d been faulty, thereby absolving the company of any misconduct. In the wake of a fatal collision involving their Model S, they also submitted data to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for review.

This handing over of data, however, was by Tesla’s own volition. Ultimately, NHTSA would like to make something like this a federal mandate. That’s why it proposed guidelines which would require manufacturers to share data in the event of such a mishap. As was the case with Tesla, when driverless vehicles crash, relevant data would have to be reviewed by federal regulators and other manufacturers. Ultimately, companies would be responsible for assuring that customers know how and why their data is being shared.

Tesla’s compliance notwithstanding, there’s still considerable industry push back over how data is distributed, and the NHTSA proposal has yet to be finalized.

What this means for consumers

According to the McKinsey report, car owners are fairly split on sharing these kinds of data, where 45 percent of respondents opposed having their information sold to third parties. But privacy standards may change.

To expedite the industry’s growth, NHTSA is currently working out how to standardize vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. In September, NHTSA released safety guidelines, including a 15-point safety assessment that touched on protecting consumer privacy. The Federal Trade Commission and NHTSA are holding a workshop on June 28 to explore privacy and security practices of manufacturers and their technologies.

The autonomous vehicle is inherently a highly efficient data repository, and thus a gold mine for manufacturers, federal regulators, hackers and businesses. Auto makers will likely need to provide greater transparency so that consumers understand what is being done with their data and how they can wield some control over it. For now, though, it’s wise to be vigilant, particularly when it comes to signing terms and conditions agreements when purchasing a connected car. Knowing what you’re getting into and what you might be disclosing, in the name of safety and convenience, can help prevent unwanted surprises down the line.

About the Author

Stephanie Braun is a director of auto product management at Esurance, where she’s responsible for designing the company’s auto product lines and managing telematics programs like DriveSense® Mobile. She has 11 years of experience in the industry, focused primarily on product design and launch, pricing and product innovation.