The car of the future will create ‘history’

Author

Vinod Bange Partner at Taylor Wessing LLP

September 15, 2014

Before investing in a connected car, comsumers need to ask how the information that flows from their vehicle is protected, and who actually owns this data

We already need a sheaf of documentation before we get behind the wheel, from driver’s licence to insurance, road tax to breakdown cover. To this we’ll soon need to add another document: a privacy policy.

At first glance it might seem fanciful that a vehicle should be subject to a data sharing agreement, but the automobile of the future – indeed, increasingly of the present – will be as highly connected as any laptop or smartphone.

It’s been predicted that there will be more than 150m cars with Internet access by 2020 – many are on the road already – and although the connected car may not herald a revolution in transport, it promises to change our experience of travel. A car with 4G connectivity will boast navigation tools for the driver, vehicle monitoring for breakdown firms, and entertainment apps for the kids in the back. As well as being making driving more pleasurable, connected cars may well make us safer, with driving habits monitored by a ‘black box’ that relays real-time data back to the insurers, enabling them to give discounts to better drivers.

It will be a brave new world, but it comes with a catch – one neatly summed up by Ford’s global vice president Jim Farley: “We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it.” This is thanks to event data recorders (EDRs), which are becoming increasingly common in the US; these EDRs collect data on everything from seat belt use to air bag deployment. Many might see this as the price worth paying to bring down insurance premiums, but the nature of the connected car means that it’s not just your speed and direction that’s being recorded. Any data originating from the car – for example through Internet browsing, emails or apps – can be collected, and from any occupant.

Like all data, this information is potentially valuable to someone: for example, advertisers can use vehicles’ geo-location to server targeted ads. Naturally, car manufacturers are at pains to justify when and with whom they share the data that they collect; however, a recent investigation in the US found that these policies were “so broadly worded” that it would “potentially allow for unlimited data collection and use”.

There are clearly some very serious questions that consumers may ask before they invest in a connected car, not least of which are how to protect the information that flows from their vehicle, and who actually owns this data.

In the UK we already have a robust data protection framework in the shape of the Data Protection Act, which includes the provision that any personal information collected is “processed fairly and lawfully” and “in accordance with the individual’s rights”. One potential problem with this is when a person gives their consent. Twenty years of the web has taught us that often such opt-in agreements are lost deep within their terms and conditions. With connected cars, it’s far from unlikely that privacy policies could be contained in the owner’s manual; even then, it’s questionable whether the average driver will understand the full consequences of giving consent to data collection.

There is nothing inherently ‘evil’ about connected cars, but it’s important for the industry to note and address the increasing consumer concern and need to be made fully aware of what this means for their privacy, and that a legal framework is established to protect data and users’ data and identities. Indeed, data protection laws need connected car manufacturers to integrate systems that safeguard the privacy of their customers (and of their customers’ passengers).

If people attach importance to their privacy, then data protection could be a new ‘specification’ to add to top speed or fuel economy. Some forward-looking manufacturers have already grasped this: BMW, for instance, has included a ‘clear all’ button with their connected car range which enables users to delete all information stored on their cars.

Most people are wise about data protection principles in general; the problem often comes when we don’t naturally associate devices with data. Promoting transparent privacy policies and ‘delete history’ buttons will be a great way to usher drivers into a much more enjoyable – and safer – world of motoring.

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