Technology The Industry

When Our Cars Get Smart

We are just entering a time when our cars are becoming smart. Cars are now taking their place in the Internet of Things and they are connecting to smartphones, wearables, the smart home and other vehicles around them. They are interfacing with drivers in much the same way as a smartphone. And they are starting to drive and park themselves. For the first time in years I find myself in a town that has a lot of parallel parking and I will be thrilled if my F150 pickup can fit itself into and out of tight parking spaces.

But along with all of these smarts in your vehicle comes a lot of new privacy concerns and worries about intrusions like hacking. People have a good reason to worry about privacy. Most people are not aware that new cars now are equipped with a black box that is similar to the black box on airplanes. The black box records your driving behavior – how fast you go, how hard you brake, if you are wearing your seatbelt, what exactly happens during an accident when the airbags deploy. The black box data can probably be used to identify when you are driving in a manner that indicates you’ve been drinking. If the black box also records GPS data, and there is no reason to think that it doesn’t, then your car manufacturer also knows everywhere you’ve driven.

All of this data is available at any time to the car manufacturer, and by inference to law enforcement and the government. Nobody has the slightest idea of what they are doing with it, but you can assume that they are creating a very detailed profile of you as a driver. They know who drives cautiously and recklessly. They know who commutes on a schedule and who is out at 4:00 in the morning. Your driving habits say a lot about you and your manufacturer may know more you than you do since they can compare your behavior to millions of other drivers.

One can imagine them using this data when marketing a new vehicle to you. Knowing how you drive means they know the car you probably really want. But this data would also be invaluable to insurance companies and one can envision the day when your insurance rates are based upon your black box driving data. One can envision the ads, “Give us your black box data and save $500 a year”.

Law enforcement agencies are already starting to subpoena the black box data after an accident. The black box is going to tell them the truth about how fast you were going and if you were driving erratically before an accident. They will know if you were talking to somebody on cellular. And, if nothing else, with the GPS data will tell them that you were definitely at the scene of the accident. Perhaps car manufacturers can use the collective black box data to identify everybody that was close to the scene of a crime or accident. And the paranoid me says that the government can access this data to always know where and when everybody drives.

The black box is another invasion of our privacy, but this is not the only concern. Your car is going to have the same sort of smarts as your cellphone. You are going to soon be able to talk to your car much easier than how you talk to Siri today as voice interface software gets a lot better. People are likely to use their car smarts as a substitute for their cellphone when driving. They can use their car to make calls, to find nearby restaurants, to shop on the web or to do many of the things that we do on our smartphones.

So marketers are going to be very interested in what people do while driving. In fact, places like restaurants and brick and mortar stores will find this data more valuable than normal cellphone data because they will be hoping to find ways to lure you to stop and shop while you are in their vicinity.

Last month the industry’s biggest trade groups, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers agreed on a series of privacy commitments designed to make you feel comfortable using the smarter cars. I am guessing that they don’t want hordes of people turning off the black boxes. The new privacy rules take effect on January 2, 2016.

They first agreed that they would only give this data to law enforcement with a subpoena, but subpoenas for this information will probably become routine. They also agreed to provide what we in the telecom industry think of as terms of service. For the first time they are going to disclose to people exactly what data they collect about you. Of course, they are going to put this disclosure into the owners’ manual, which nobody reads, and which is about as effective as the little boxes you check without reading every time you upgrade software.

These groups agreed that getting people’s trust is essential if people are to accept the new technologies. But they are not offering any privacy, just disclosure that they are spying on you. That isn’t going to make anybody feel secure. I think they are barking up the wrong tree. If the technology in cars is easy to use and makes people’s lives easier, people will accept it like we accepted the smartphone.

But the black box is a whole different issue. Most people are going to remain blissfully unaware of how much data the car manufacturers are collecting about them. But all it will take to make the black box an issue is a few cases where this data is abused and that abuse is splashed over social media to prompt America to wake up and start disconnecting the black boxes.

I think the day will come when there will be backlash against the black boxes. There is nothing legally requiring people to give access to this kind of data. I can’t blame the car manufacturers from using this as a way to join the world of big data. Black box data en masse will tell them more about how people really drive than they have ever known before. But they must also be prepared for a public backlash at some point. The purpose of the black box is to spy on us and I can’t see how they can call it anything else. I’m all for using technology to make my driving experience better, but I can’t think of one reason why telling Ford how I drive my truck helps me. Smart cars – yes, spying vehicles – no.

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