Will your next new car be "smart" enough to report you for speeding?
It's no secret that our cars and trucks are getting a lot smarter. Many automakers have promised that fully self-driving cars aren't all that far off, assuming that the legal issues can be overcome -- and bits and pieces of that future technology are already being built into today's new cars.
Systems that keep your car on course and help you avoid collisions have received a lot of attention as safety innovations, and rightly so. Even mass-market models from companies like Ford and Toyota are incorporating lane-change warning systems and other advanced sensors. Tesla Motors is already shipping its latest models with what it claims will be the hardware of a future "autopilot" system.
But there's another new technology coming to our cars soon, one that's being touted as a big advance in safety: Soon, your car's computers will have the ability to communicate with other cars -- and with the government, too.
That raises some big privacy concerns.
A potentially huge safety improvement -- but could it limit freedom?
The new technology is called "V2X." That's a shorthand for two related concepts: "V2V" -- vehicle-to-vehicle communications -- and "V2I," or vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.
V2V, cars talking to other cars, has obvious potential to improve traffic safety. Imagine if your car could warn the other drivers around you on the highway that you were about to change lanes, or planning to take the next exit. Those drivers, or their smart cruise-control systems, could help make sure they stayed out of your way. Or they could warn you to hang on a moment while the car in front of you makes it own move.
Technology like that is coming soon. This past summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, released a lengthy report on the state of V2V technology, as well as a draft of proposed standards that automakers implementing the technology would have to meet.
Automakers are already moving to incorporate it: Daimler's (MBGA.F 1.39%) Mercedes-Benz unit incorporated into some models in 2013 a very basic V2V technology that it calls "Car-to-X." It requires a smartphone app to work, but future versions won't. General Motors (GM 3.82%) has confirmed that its V2V system will be offered in some 2017-model Cadillacs, and several other automakers are believed to have V2V systems set for production within the next two or three years.
The report is over 300 pages, but the gist is this: The first versions of the technology will allow cars to send warnings to other cars' drivers -- but not to control the other cars. It's expected to be widely available by 2020, possibly earlier, and the systems will cost around $350 per vehicle.
At first glance, that all seems reasonable. Assuming that liability issues can be worked out and the systems work as advertised, that's a modest price for what could be a huge improvement in highway safety.
As conceived, V2I -- vehicles talking to infrastructure -- has similar benefits. Think of a traffic light warning you that it was about to change, or a "smart" highway system that tells you to keep left (or to take a specific detour) to avoid an upcoming accident.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly expressed support for V2X, and that isn't just talk. The NHTSA is aiming to get regulations in place requiring the technology in all new vehicles by 2017, before Obama leaves office.
But privacy and civil liberties advocates have some big beefs with V2X that will need to be resolved first.
How your next car could report you for speeding
Imagine a section of a busy highway that runs through a small town. Now imagine that the town's police force maintains a round-the-clock radar trap on that stretch and generates a pretty good income from writing lots of speeding tickets.
It's not hard to imagine, is it? Most of us who have been driving on America's highways for any length of time have seen such things. But now imagine that the small town sets the V2I sensors on its little stretch of freeway to ask every car that comes by for its current speed -- and then automatically mails speeding tickets to the drivers of every car that's even slightly over the limit.
That could be a revenue bonanza for the town. But there are good reasons that real-life police don't generally bother ticketing people for doing, say, 57 in a 55-mile-per-hour zone. Among them: It seems awfully petty, and that hurts relations between cops and citizens. Community relations and public safety both favor focusing on the more egregious offenders.
In this case, the potential for that kind of abuse is a big challenge for the proponents of V2X technology. If things like that start happening automatically, or if people even think it's possible, drivers won't want this technology in their cars. They'll find some way to disable it, choose cars that don't have it -- or lobby Congress to ditch the whole V2X idea altogether.
The good news: Regulators will limit the potential for abuse -- at first
The good news is that regulators seem to know that such concerns could make V2X a nonstarter. That's why NHTSA's report says very clearly that they won't allow the systems' data to be used that way -- at least at first.
At the outset, readers should understand some very important points about the V2V system as currently contemplated by NHTSA. The system will not collect or store any data identifying individuals or individual vehicles, nor will it enable the government to do so. There is no data in the safety messages exchanged by vehicles or collected by the V2V system that could be used by law enforcement or private entities to personally identify a speeding or erratic driver. [Emphasis added].
That's all good. And the automakers are currently working together to create privacy principles for the new systems, which are set to go into effect at the beginning of 2016. Those principles follow the general lines you'd expect: You'll know who your car is sharing data with and what it's sharing, and you'll have some ability to limit both of those things.
The devil will be in the details, of course -- not just details of the restrictions that the government and automakers put around the data your super-smart car collects, but in the details of the systems and rules that come along after the first versions of V2V are widely adopted.
One thing is for sure, though: Privacy advocates and car buyers -- and investors in the companies advancing these technologies -- will be watching very closely.