Dealing With Data Privacy and Self-Driving Cars

In April 2017, Alphabet subsidiary company Waymo LLC began limited tests of an autonomous taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona. Then, on December 5, 2018, Waymo rolled out its first self-driving car service called “Waymo One” which lets users in metro Phoenix order a pick-up with an app. The company plans to open a manufacturing facility in southeast Michigan.

Human safety operators are monitoring the Waymo One’s robotic driving technology – for the time being. Other small start-up companies are racing into the competition, including May Mobility and Drive.ai which are operating cash-earning shuttle services.

For self-driving cars to work, they need internal mapping and navigation systems. In addition, as an autonomous vehicle drives around, the onboard software logs location history data with date/time stamps.

It is this logged location information that is raising concerns regarding consumer privacy, data ownership (the car owner versus the car maker), cybersecurity, and public safety.

Mapping data is highly proprietary right now and technology innovators are weighing the profitability of offering their goods and services cheaply (or free of charge) to buyers, in exchange for selling customers’ usage information to third-party vendors, perhaps without the consumer’s prior knowledge and consent.

Where and when single individuals go places, as well as how long they stay there, can be mapped separately to give marketers an easy target for click-through ads incorporated into the car map screens.

Large amounts of data, “including traffic and congestion patterns, where pedestrians cross the street, which houses and businesses have Wi-Fi, and other details, which could be monetized,” according to science and tech news outlet Phys.org, adding that consumers will dwell in darkness about how their personal driving data is used by the vehicle’s manufacturer:

“The geospatial data can be used to draw new maps identifying the spaces where we live and travel. That information is currently housed in technological and corporate black boxes.”

Self-driving digital dashboards, such as the one available on the GM Marketplace, currently display information about advertisement-triggering events, targeted products, and nearby outlets for them. From the company’s website:

“Be the first to remedy an empty tank. Marketplace allows fuel merchants to be the initial choice following a low-fuel event trigger that generates convenience store and fuel offers based on proximity.”

Will self-driving car buyers have to choose between saving money and sacrificing personal privacy? If the history of smartphones is any indication, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’

As just one example, Apple offers a premium service for its proprietary phones that is supposed to stop user data-sharing with government agencies and third-party vendors. Luis Alvarez Leon, an assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth College, explained the trade-off between a lower purchase price and less data privacy:

“Consumers [could be] presented with a choice where they’re going to give up some data, but that saves them a few hundred or maybe thousands of dollars.”

Following in the footsteps of tech giant Google (which is currently embroiled in multiple lawsuits regarding illegal user data sharing with third-party marketers), “Car companies are now realizing that they’ve been sitting for years on troves of customer information that give them an edge on turning their product into a bundle of services,” said Alvarez León.

Consider this chilling admission from the CEO of Ford, Jim Hackett:

“We know what people make. How do we know that? It’s because they borrow money from us [to finance their vehicle purchases]. And when you ask somebody what they make, we know where they work, you know. We know if they’re married. We know how long they have lived in their house because these are all on the credit applications. We’ve never ever been challenged on how we use that. And that’s the leverage we got here with the data.”

Ford Motor Company earns more than $1 for every $3 of profit is generated by the finance entity that makes loans to more than 5,000 car dealers and four million customers, principally in the U.S. and Canada.

In November 2018, Ford acquired an electric scooter company called Spin which came bundled with oodles of data about consumers’ driving habits and when, how, and where people travel.

As autonomous driving systems spread throughout the world’s nations, the important issue of who owns user mapping data will need to be addressed. The transportation economy will make commodities out of not only vehicles but drivers themselves.

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