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Self-Driving Cars: What Do Car Companies Know About Your Private Life?

By Chris Neiger - Apr 1, 2016 at 9:00AM

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Driverless cars of the future may know us a little too well.

Image source: Google.

Imagine for a moment that you have a brand-new self-driving car in your driveway. It'll take you exactly where you want to go, knows the fastest way to get there, and it'll even send you a text reminding you when it's time to leave. 

That will all be possible in the not-too-distant future. But to get there, that car's going to need just a few things from you first. In fact, it might want to take a quick peek through your texts and emails to figure out where your favorite coffee shop is or if you have a meeting scheduled somewhere along the way. It might also want to know if the person sitting next to you is your spouse, child, or someone else, so it can recommend a route to drop them off at home, school, or somewhere else. 

Perhaps this sounds a bit too far-fetched. And some of it will actually be pretty convenient. The problem is that right now there are no standards in place to protect all of the data that self-driving cars will need (or the data they'll create), and that's got the U.S. government just a bit concerned. 

The implications could be huge for Alphabet's (GOOG -1.29%) (GOOGL -1.34%) Google, Tesla Motors (TSLA -6.42%), and other companies making big pushes into self-driving technology. 

Just a quick peek
BMW made it known at last year's North American International Auto Show that advertisers are foaming at the mouth to get their hands on the data already being collected by new cars. "What's that?" you say? You didn't know your car was collecting data? Well, it is, and it's collecting a ton of it. 

New cars have myriad sensors that make cars safer, but they also allow automakers to know a lot more about where vehicles go, when they drive, and how far they're driven. And that data has already been used in court cases by law enforcement and insurance companies. BMW says advertisers have even asked the carmaker for data on which seat a child is sitting in (because somehow that's important data for selling you something). 

The level of data collection from new cars became apparent back in 2013, when New York Times reporter John Broder reviewed Tesla's Model S. There were more than a few discrepancies between how Broder said the Model S's batteries performed and how Tesla said they should. So Tesla released very detailed information about how the car performed in order to counter Broder's claims. 

Tesla was able to know whether or not the battery had -- at any time during the review -- run out of power, how many miles were left of the battery charge when the car was at a specific charging station, what speed ranges Broder made over parts of the trip, cruise control settings, cabin temperature settings, and when he was driving in circles in a parking lot, etc. 

Not all cars are able to collect the same level of data as the Model S. The car's electric drivetrain makes it especially easy to collect very specific data. But the U.S. government is concerned that self-driving cars will need to collect even more data than is already gathered now, and that Google and other companies will use it for their own purposes -- and without users' knowledge.

At a congressional hearing this month, Sen. Ed Markey asked Google, General Motors, and others if they think the government should set standards for self-driving vehicle data collection. Google, GM, and others essentially gave answers saying that they have their own privacy policies that protect user data. But that didn't sit well with Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

"May I respectfully suggest that the answer to the question -- should there be mandatory safety and privacy standards? -- is, 'Yes,'" Blumenthal said. 

There are no laws or standards for vehicle data collection right now, and some think that while the government is figuring out the standards for how autonomous cars will drive down the road, it should be setting privacy standards as well. 

How tech and automakers could ensure privacy
Groups of automakers in the Alliance of American Manufacturers and the Association of Global Auto makers have pledged to keep their users' data private, but this pledge was made two years ago and doesn't necessarily apply to self-driving cars. 

And if Google's response at the congressional hearing this month was any indicator, tech companies and automakers aren't exactly keen on having the government set standards for data privacy. 

Which means that drivers in the U.S. should be hoping for the government to lay out specific rules about what companies can and can't do with users' data while they're making other laws about self-driving cars. Any rules Congress decides on won't be known until later this year at the earliest.

The government's upcoming rules probably won't ensure our privacy completely, but it'll certainly be better than if Google, Tesla, and other companies are left alone to the job.


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