Once cars can talk, what will they say about us?

I recently had the pleasure of attending the IFA 2012 consumer electronics showin Berlin as a guest of the IFA organizers. When not drinking Pilsner and eating bratwurst I managed to squeeze in a panel on the future of the car, featuring representatives from Ford, Microsoft, Inrix (the leading provider of aggregated traffic data to onboard GPS systems), and TuneIn Radio, makers of a music app for cars. I also interviewed Pim van der Jagt, a managing director for Ford Europe.

2013 Cadillac XTS with Cue controls.

Bottom line? In a few short years our cars will be connected and talking to each other. They will also be able to collect vast amounts of data about who we are, where we go, and what we do. Some of these things will undoubtedly make our vehicles much safer; some may erase what little roadside privacy we have left. (See also "Behind the wheel with Cadillac's high-tech Cue."

This is more than just Jetsons-like fantasy. Last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and eight major car manufacturers launched a year-long test of car-to-car communications in Ann Arbor. Some 2800 cars, trucks, and city buses have been equipped with gear that will broadcast their size, speed, and location to each other as they roll down the road, using a special band of WiFi spectrum reserved for vehicle-to-vehicle communications. If another car gets too close or a pedestrian suddenly steps into the intersection, drivers receive an alert and can react accordingly.

Some 70 percent of all accidents can be avoided if cars are networked, says van der Jagt. But that’s really just the beginning. Technology already exists that would allow your car’s computer to take control of the brakes and accelerator to avoid a collision, or to moderate the speed of each car to keep traffic flowing. And while we’re still a long ways away from being able to climb into the backseat and take a nap while our cars drive us to our destination (sorry Google Car fans), systems that can take the wheel during certain situations -- like when stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic -- are likely to appear much sooner, says van der Jagt. The only question is whether drivers would be willing to hand the wheel over to their computer.

Because the cars in the Ann Arbor test only need to know the location of other vehicles within 300 meters, there’s no need to connect to the Internet or record your car’s location, says van der Jagt. And since the system doesn’t collect any data from the car’s registration or VIN, there’s no way for Ford or anyone else to know who you are and where you’re going, he adds.

But that’s just one aspect of the connected car. The car of the future will also be personalized. It will be able to tell who just climbed behind the wheel and adjust the seats, mirrors, environmental controls, and radio stations accordingly. Using your smart phone, it will be able to connect to your data in the cloud, download your Outlook calendar, remind you about your next meeting, calculate when you’ll get there, and send an email to other attendees if you’re running late. It will know the music you like to listen to, the routes you like to take each day and how fast you drive to get there. Van der Jagt says Ford is even working on sensors built into the seats that can monitor your heart rate to determine if you’re about to fall asleep at the wheel or just had a heart attack. For those features, the car (and its various mobile service providers) will definitely need to know who you are and where you are.

The question then becomes, what happens to all this data? At this point, Inrix collects all its traffic data anonymously, and Ford and Microsoft’s philosophy is the customer owns the data. But exactly what that means is unclear. Are identity and location data stored, and if so, by whom and for how long? What other entities will have access to this information? Will the cops demand this data in order to nab speeders? And what about companies that want to monetize that data – like an insurance company that offers discounts for good drivers while penalizing those who put the pedal to the metal on a semi-regular basis, as Progressive Insurance already does via its “black box” electronic data recorders? What’s to keep a mobile service provider from selling that data to the highest bidders?

We’ve already seen what happens with cell phone data that’s collected by the wireless companies: Police made more than 1.3 million requests for location data last year alone, roughly two thirds of them in non-emergency situations. It was up to the wireless companies’ attorneys to determine whether those requests would be honored and their customers’ location data shared. Federal courts have recently ruled that sharing such data without a warrant is not a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure. And while commercial use of location data is still in its infancy, in part because wireless companies fear a privacy backlash, that won’t last forever. That data too could be a target of law enforcement requests.

If the tests in Ann Arbor prove successful, car-to-car networking is likely to be mandated by NHTSA – and may appear in cars as early as 2018. The notion of cloud-connected cars is less certain, but also seems inevitable. The question will be whether we will gain the legal right to control how our car data is used, or if the mobile service companies will be the ones with their hands firmly on the wheel.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

Now read this:

Facebook's 'man in the middle' attack on our data

Making Facebook private won't protect you

How to keep hackers out of your Google, Facebook, and Twitter accounts

Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter

Comments