BARCELONA, Spain — Cars will soon be so linked into wireless networks that they will be like giant rolling smartphones – with calling systems, streaming video, cameras and applications capable of harnessing the unprecedented trove of data vehicles will produce about themselves and the humans who drive them.
The battle over who can access all this data is an awkward undercurrent amid recent announcements by car manufacturers touting their new, Internet-capable vehicle systems.
Low on gas? Soon a gas station app may know before you do. Tires need rotating? Your car may wirelessly alert your dealership when it’s time. Ready for a lunch break? Your car can make a reasonable guess based on the hour. A savvy restaurant app may soon use additional detail, such as whether the person in the back seat is watching a Disney movie, in deciding to offer an advertisement featuring a Happy Meal and directions to the nearest McDonald’s.
Cars have long gathered data to monitor safety and performance. But their newfound connectivity may allow a range of parties – automakers, software developers, perhaps even police officers – new access to such information, privacy advocates say. Because few U.S. laws govern these issues, consumers have little control over who can see this data and how it can be used.
More than 60 percent of vehicles worldwide will be connected directly to the Internet by 2017, up from 11 percent last year, predicts ABI Research. In North America and Europe, that percentage is likely to reach 80 percent.
Many cars already record their speed, direction and gear setting, as well as when brakes activate and for how long. Newer systems also can track whether road surfaces are slick or whether the driver is wearing a seat belt – information potentially valuable to police and insurance companies investigating crashes. “The cars produce literally hundreds of megabytes of data each second,” said John Ellis, a Ford technologist who demonstrated some of the new Internet-based systems at the company’s display at the Mobile World Congress, which ended last week in Barcelona. “The technology is advancing so much faster than legislation or business models are keeping up.”
‘People are being duped’
Such issues go beyond vehicles. Many of the nearly 1,500 exhibits at the Mobile World Congress touted technology fueled by personal information. Thermostats, health sensors, even Dumpsters, can function better, according to companies exhibiting their products here, if individual behavior is tracked.
In the United States, proposed new federal highway safety rules would require all new cars by 2014 to come equipped with so-called “black boxes” to save vehicle information from the final seconds before and after crashes. The plan has prompted several privacy groups to lobby for an explicit declaration that data produced by a vehicle is owned by the motorist, with authorities having access only under certain conditions.
There are few legal standards for what information a vehicle can collect, how it can be used and by whom. Each manufacturer produces its own onboard Internet systems, each with specific rules that few consumers review and even fewer understand, said privacy experts.
“People are being duped into giving away a whole lot of information that maybe somebody ought to ask us about first,” said Dorothy Glancy, a Santa Clara (Calif.) University law professor who studies privacy and transportation.
Also in Barcelona, General Motors announced plans to install high-speed wireless connections on all of its vehicles beginning with the 2015 model year, in partnership with AT&T. The new system will augment OnStar, which long has provided some GM customers with directions, emergency assistance and help recovering stolen cars.
One of the prototype vehicles on display here, a dark blue Cadillac ATS sedan, was outfitted with OnStar, streaming video, music apps and cameras installed aimed at both the interior and exterior of the car. Stefan Cross, an executive with public relations firm Weber Shandwick, which was assisting in GM’s announcement of the new technology, said one possible feature would alert owners by text messages if their cars are bumped or hit. Owners might then be able to activate the exterior cameras remotely for immediate visual reconnaissance in the aftermath of an incident.
Cross said GM would protect the privacy of its customers, even as the volume of data increases. “We have that data. We’re just not prepared to release it to third parties.”
Yet experts say that in the absence of strong national privacy laws, valuable data often leaks out. Any information produced by a vehicle and transmitted over the Internet ends up on servers, making it a potential target for authorities, lawyers engaged in court cases or even hackers. The prospect of the government itself gaining access to rich new streams of personal information worries some privacy experts as well. Vehicle data could be used to generate tickets or prosecute drivers after accidents.
“As soon as that data starts flowing to outside parties, whether app developers or wireless carriers, I start getting nervous,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.