Would You Trust Google’s Autonomous Taxi Service?

Did you know that Waymo LLC (a subsidiary of Google’s Alphabet holding company) began testing its autonomous taxi service on a limited basis in Phoenix, Arizona in April 2017? A year and a half later, on December 5, 2018, Waymo introduced its first self-driving car service (“Waymo One”) which features an app that lets users in the Phoenix area request a passenger pick-up.

Due to the newness of this robotic technology and errors that surfaced after initial trials (including these six crashes), human operators are riding shotgun on Waymo One’s automated driving technology – for the time being, at least.

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Producing vehicles equipped with autonomous driving systems is becoming a big, booming business. Lyft and Uber are working toward kicking their human drivers to the curb as soon as possible. International tech companies such as Apple, IBM, and Intel are figuring out how to share the bounty that robotic driving promises as consumers get used to the idea of letting a machine navigate and power through traffic.

One week ago, on June 20, 2019, Waymo CEO John Krafcik announced that his company had partnered with automotive manufacturing giants Renault and Nissan to iron out the wrinkles in the emerging autonomous vehicle market.

Nissan has already introduced its ProPilot Assist which uses adaptive cruise control to keep vehicles a safe distance apart while driving as well as steering assistance to help you stay inside the lines of your lane.

Renault teamed up with a multi-organization French autonomous laboratory project which is testing self-driving vehicles. The French government announced its goal of having autonomous driving as early as 2020 and no later than 2022.

The Japanese government has its sights set on having self-driving vehicles available by 2020 during the Tokyo Olympics. To that end, the Japanese Diet changed some of its road laws in May 2019 to permit vehicles with some automated features to operate in a limited capacity on certain roads.

Self-driving cars need internal mapping and navigation systems to function. The integrated hardware and software system tracks and records location history data with date and time information.

If the vehicle and technology companies have their way, all the data generated by their cutting-edge systems will be eyes-only to the vendors. Customers will be left in the dark about the identities of strangers who receive information about the daily habits of each and every passenger in a self-driving vehicle.

Consumer location information is creating controversy over sensitive and important issues such as personal privacy, who owns the transportation mapping data, cybersecurity, and public safety.

Vehicle manufacturers currently hold the view that users have given up their data ownership rights when they drive off in an autonomously-enabled ride.

For this reason, a movement toward open source data sharing is gaining ground and popularity in legal chambers. Arizona, California, and Michigan are leading the way by passing laws to allow self-driving vehicles – despite opposition from citizen and advocacy groups.

Luis Alvarez Leon is an assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth College. He confirmed that GPS mapping data can be rich revenue streams for technology makers:

“Information companies are providing the mapping service as an ancillary way of refining their search algorithms, of collecting more data about the consumers…[and] of repackaging it for other third parties.”

Alvarez Leon elaborated on this supposedly new and improved consumer-friendly capability:

“The entire dashboard of the car is an enormous screen that does not just display the map, but also [displays] promotions and media. This a good illustration of the convergence of navigation and the platform economy.”

Optimist Alvarez Leon envisions a world where consumers of driverless cars and their onboard navigation systems are empowered rather than exploited, with complete control over their personal data usage:

“The fundamental change would be to opt-in to these services and the default is that data are not collected. But you are aware of what you’re signing up for. This has to be a prominent design feature. For me, I’d be perfectly happy with a pay model. I pay for various digital services, for which there are free options. But I’d rather pay for them because I have more agency and control over the product I’m getting, rather than the hidden cost of getting something for free but then subsidizing it with who-knows-what sort of information.”

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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