Car Computers: Who Gets the Data?

In 2014, new cars are computers on wheels. Who gets your vehicle's data?

Man in car riding a data stream, cars as computers, illus. by Ron Chan, image

Virtually all of your car's components are connected to one or more onboard computers. 

It’s time to change the way you think about your car. On the one hand, it’s a machine that takes you to work, to the grocery store, and on weekend road trips. But it’s also a rolling computer, quite possibly the smartest one you own.

Past due for an oil change? Your vehicle will remind you. Forget to buckle up? Your car’s on it. And not only is your car keeping tabs and alerting you, it could be sending a stream of data about itself and your driving habits to the automaker. If your current car isn’t doing all of this, your next one probably will.

These technical advances can provide major convenience to consumers by transmitting useful info to car companies, but they also raise questions about consumer choice, privacy, and security: Who decides where the data goes and how it’s used? Who has access to the data your car produces? Is the data secure from prying eyes? As technology continues to rapidly evolve, there is a growing need to have clear answers to these questions.

Connected Car Conundrum

It’s not news that onboard computers control or monitor most of the systems that operate your car. That trend began in 1981, when the Clean Air Act required new vehicles to emit fewer exhaust pollutants. Automakers responded with onboard computer systems that controlled several engine functions and that could alert drivers to malfunctioning emission-control equipment and store trouble codes so that mechanics could pinpoint problems.

Those relatively simple systems were followed by computer-controlled safety features such as antilock brakes and adaptive cruise control and, more recently, by sophisticated navigation and crash avoidance systems. Today, virtually all automotive components—the engine, transmission, brakes, air conditioning, lights, navigation system, and so on—are connected to one or more onboard computers.

The newest computers and communications equipment, known as telematics devices, do much more than monitor and regulate your car’s basic functions. They’re also able to collect information from onboard sensors connected to the accelerator, brakes, GPS, seat belts, air conditioner, locks, and many other functions. They can stream this data via Wi-Fi or mobile networks to carmakers, which can use the information to provide services including automatically updating your vehicle’s software, keeping tabs on automotive performance, and sending bulletins to your car’s dashboard display or even a local dealer when it’s time for a service visit.

By 2018 more than 50 million new cars world-wide will contain some type of factory-installed safety and security telematics, up from 11.5 million in 2013, according to tech industry analyst group ABI Research.

Telematics is part of a much broader trend, however. More and more, manufacturers and consumers are viewing cars not just as stand-alone machines, but also as devices that sync up with smartphones and other personal electronics or plug into the Internet to communicate with cloud-based services. More than nine in 10 new-car owners believe that in the future all autos will connect to the Internet, according to a 2013 survey from CGS Advisors, a consulting firm specializing in connected technologies. Before you know it, you’ll be able to access a host of Internet activities while driving. This prospect does not sit well with traffic-safety advocates concerned about the dangers of distracted driving.

At Your Service

Automakers and other entities, including the Auto Club, are responding to consumers’ desire for increased connectivity by developing systems that connect customers to their cars via their smartphones and computers. Services include sending maintenance reminders and recall notices out to customers, unlocking their vehicles remotely, and finding their cars in parking lots. Examples of systems now available are Ford’s Sync, Kia’s UVO, Hyundai’s Blue Link, Mercedes-Benz’s Mbrace, General Motors’ OnStar, and Toyota’s Entune.

No doubt these products and services will help to make driving more enjoyable, more efficient, and maybe even safer for motorists. However, the emerging question is this: Who decides how this information is used? As things stand now, vehicle owners are not typically informed about the data their cars collect or transmit, or, specifically, how the data is used.

A Question of Choice

As with many technical advances, increased connectivity has its pros and cons. “All this information can be really positive for both society and individuals,” says John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of automotive engineering and repair. “It can help keep you safe by telling you your car’s tire pressure is low. It can prevent a breakdown by letting you know your car’s alternator is failing. And it can save you money by helping you maintain your car better.”

But it also raises concerns because in most cases there’s no way for you, the consumer, to limit or control who has access to the personal information or vehicle data your car generates. You can turn off the cookies or GPS functions on a laptop or smartphone if you don’t want to be tracked on those devices. “That level of control isn’t available in a car,” says Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco–based consumer watchdog group. Should it be?

To date, automakers haven’t been required to provide options or information to consumers. Some car companies have data about your vehicle and also your driving habits—including, for example, how fast you drive and your car’s location at any given time.

“Consumers should have the right to know who’s getting data from their vehicle and what choices they have about how it’s used,” AAA’s Nielsen says. “As vehicles become more sophisticated and collect and transmit more data, the consumer’s choices and options need to keep pace.”

Contributor John Lehrer provided additional reporting for this story.

Illustration by Ron Chan

This article was first published in March 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information. 

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