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Data Collection for Self-Driving Cars Could Be Risking Your Privacy

A big reason why the arrival of totally self-driving cars is still years, if not decades, in the future is that it will require a map of every inch of our road system, as well as a vast database of human driving behavior — and collecting all that information is a gargantuan task. Tesla Co-Founder and CEO Elon Musk estimates that at least 6 billion miles of testing and information-gathering will be required before government regulators will give fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) the green light.

Most of us have seen photos and videos of cars covered with radar, sonar and camera technology, traversing our streets as Google and other companies map our roadways. So we have a pretty good idea of how much of the mapping is being accomplished, but what about all that intel on human driving behavior? What do you think is the source of that? Well, it’s us. We’re the source. You and me.

How Do They Do It?

The entities collecting this information are not only watching us — they’re also monitoring and recording our behavior. “Who are they?” you might ask. The answer: Anyone with a stake in whatever is going on in our cars. Even some insurance companies are promising lower premiums if they can install an information-gathering device in your car. Here, however, we’ll focus on automakers as the “they” we might want to be concerned about.

Newer cars are loaded with sensors of all shapes and sizes. In addition to monitoring what’s happening at the moment, many of these sensors use software to store that data, as well. If data is stored, it can be accessed. Since 2014, every new car has been equipped with an event data recorder (EDR), which records and stores more than a dozen specific data points — seat-belt use, vehicle speed, braking activation, etc. — for a period of about 10 seconds during a crash. Many insurance companies now tap into stored EDR data to establish blame in an accident, as well as to detect fraud. That information is also accessible by any carmaker willing to go get it.

While EDRs are mandated by the government, other data-gathering software in our cars is there because it’s standard equipment or, in some cases, because we’ve added it through the optional features we’ve selected. Driver-assistance systems that help us park, stay in our lane, avoid rear-ending another car and steer for short periods of time all keep track of what we’re doing. Concierge services such as OnStar can track us too, and carmakers can mine all this information.

A number of automakers, including General Motors and Volkswagen, have agreements in place with the vision-based technology company Mobileye to use the cameras in the cars they sell to help Mobileye map our highways. It’s sort of democratizing the data-gathering process.

They Can’t Do That, Can They?

No question, carmakers need our permission to grab all this data about where we go and how we drive. However, we can grant them access without even being aware that we’re doing so. How? Through the manufacturer’s terms of use we agree to when signing a new-car purchase contract. Because of the volume and variety of data being collected, what’s covered under any particular terms of use is fuzzy and can probably be argued, but a carmaker will use it to defend mining your information.

What it means to you: Most of us, according to the Pew Research Center, don’t want our driving habits monitored and recorded, but it’s happening every day. Our vehicles are the logical and most efficient means for gathering the colossal amounts of data needed to push self-driving cars forward, and our privacy is often a victim.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More

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