As cars become smarter, a veritable ocean of information about the private lives of drivers will become readily available.
But who should have access to that data, and for what purposes? That question was at the forefront of a panel discussion last week at the annual Texas Transportation Forum in Austin.
Politicians aren’t sure what data they need. Scientists and researchers will look at that data in ways they never knew.
Rob Spillar, Austin transportation director
Here’s a hypothetical example:
Let’s say a car manufacturer has real-time access to the inside of your car, and can determine through sensors whether or not you have a child in a car seat. The information can be used to automatically turn off a car’s air bags to prevent injury to the child in the event of a crash.
But what if the manufacturer has a marketing deal with a retailer and wants to “push” advertisements of child care products onto your car’s entertainment system?
That type of question has not yet been addressed by state or federal laws, and a panel of experts on the subject said Tuesday they don’t expect government action any time soon.
“I think it’s going to be a chaotic transition to harmonize the laws,” said one panelist, Ginger Goodin, director of policy research at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. She said that, at a minimum, the auto industry would keep customers’ log-in information, but also “the size and location of the occupants in the car for airbag operation, and your entertainment interests.”
Elected officials have traditionally been skeptical of passing laws that might be perceived as slowing technological developments, said Shant Boyajian, a Washington-based lawyer who specializes in transportation policy.
Rob Spillar, Austin’s director of transportation, added, “Politicians aren’t sure what data they need. Scientists and researchers will look at that data in ways they never knew.”
Todd Humphreys, an associate aerospace engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, noted that as more cars on the road can “talk” to each other to avoid collisions, the type of information being broadcast out of cars cannot be encrypted. That means the information can be captured by hackers.
Spillar and Shant also noted that, while many Americans have said in surveys over the years that they take their privacy seriously and do not want government agencies or corporations storing their data, the opposite is true when motorists wish to take full advantage of on-board technology. For example, if a car’s navigation system requires a user to input personal information such as a name and phone number to log on, motorists tend to be willing to share that information to take full advantage of the technology.
“Among users,” Spillar said, “there’s going to be a latent desire to opt it.”