Gone are the days when vehicular transport simply meant four wheels, an internal combustion engine, two or more doors, and a solid roof (if you were lucky). Cars, trucks, and buses of the digital age typically carry around 40 microprocessors and dozens of electronic sensors to regulate their functions and monitor performance.
And like other mechanisms and appliances which incorporate sensors, most or all of them are smart and connected, in the Internet of Things or IoT manner.
It’s been estimated that a connected motor vehicle routinely ships out 25GB (that’s gigabytes, mind you) of data to the cloud – every hour. That’s a lot of information. And you’re likely wondering how it’s being gathered, who’s looking at it, and what it’s being used for. We’ll be looking to provide some answers, in this article.
When Smart Cars Collect Your Data, What Kind of Information is Being Gathered?
As of 2016, slightly less than 20% of new cars sold globally are capable of transmitting data via the internet – a figure that’s expected to reach 75%, by 2020, with an annual market for connected car data services in the region of $40 billion.
Much of that information relates to vehicle maintenance, with smart cars able to monitor their own components for signs of wear and tear. But an even greater proportion relates to driving history: Where you’ve been, the route you took to get there, pit stops along the way, what times you were on the road, etc. Almost 100% of new vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2014 were able to routinely record and transmit their driving history back to the parent company or manufacturer.
Other information streams relate to factors such as driving speed, your behavior at the wheel, road and traffic conditions, or even your use of the vehicle’s on-board entertainment system and accessories.
To facilitate this data-gathering process, smart sensors, cameras, GPS and geo-location systems, LIDAR (using laser light to detect and locate objects, in a similar way to radar), and other technologies are employed – with new ones being added, as they emerge.
Why Do They Need All This Information?
Various reasons are cited as to why smart cars collect your data.
Car manufacturers usually propose the argument that data-gathering is done in the best interests of the consumer, with aggregated information being studied and used to improve performance and design features, on the larger scale. This can lead to safer, more environment and driver-friendly models in future.
At the individual level, information relating to a vehicle owner may be used to increase safety and extend the service life of their car through early warnings and preventative maintenance. A record of their preferences and on the road behaviors can also enable the delivery of a more personalized and optimized experience – ranging from better route planning and fuel-saving tips, to automation and targeted suggestions relating to in-car entertainment and points of interest along the highway.
Highway engineers, transport authorities, and city planners may use information gathered from smart cars in assessing road and traffic conditions, traffic volumes, infrastructure, lighting, and safety.
And insurers may request access to vehicular information in order to guide their policy-making in general, and in assessing the risk or liability associated with specific demographic groups, or individual drivers.
Are There Benefits for Vehicle Owners?
Besides the personalization aspect (your car remembers your favorite CD selection and plays it automatically when you get in, plots the shortest route to your office or favorite restaurant, etc.), it’s possible to avoid potential accidents or inconvenience on the road, through the pre-emptive maintenance made possible with on-board monitoring. This can also save you money, in the long run.
Some manufacturers allow vehicle owners to request that the data that’s collected on them be sent on to their insurance companies – which can be beneficial in negotiating lower rates. Note that the reverse also holds true, and insurance companies can raise your premiums if they have evidence that you’re a hazard on the highway.
And the information aggregated by city, state, and regional authorities may lead to wider benefits in the shape of improved roads, reduced traffic, and smarter infrastructure. It’s been estimated that over 10,000 deaths and 500,000 injuries could be prevented using various measures derived from the data obtained through smart car sensors and IoT devices on the roads.
How Do the Car Companies Benefit?
Some new product development and the optimization of existing models can be directly traced to information gleaned from smart car sensors and monitoring.
The monitoring and data-gathering ecosystem also gives auto manufacturers an enhanced line of communication with their consumers. This may be exploited through in-car notification systems offering help and advice, or through automation capable of acting on what’s been observed by the on-board sensors.
There’s also a less altruistic benefit for the car companies, in the option of selling consumer data on to third parties. There should be an opt-out clause relating to this, and information on the conditions spelled out in the owner’s manual. But as is usually the case with privacy matters on the internet, not all documentation was created equal. And it may not be immediately obvious what the exact terms are, or what rights you have as the consumer.
Under voluntary principles set out by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in 2014, most car makers in the United States have agreed to seek permission before sharing anything about a driver’s location, health or behavior with third parties – but this condition doesn’t apply to the sharing of data with emergency workers or for internal research purposes.
What Are the Other Dangers?
Much of the data collected in early digital car technologies was stored internally within the vehicle. These on-board storage systems are typically unprotected – often with the assumption that they’re safe simply because no-one other than a qualified mechanic could figure out how to gain access to them.
With the evolution of the IoT and smart sensors, much of this data storage now occurs at the motor manufacturer’s own data center, with data transmission occurring via the cloud. But again, these systems remain largely unsecured making automotive cybersecurity a part of the debate.
A report on this subject commissioned by U.S. Senator Edward Markey raised the alarming observation that, of the 14 major manufacturers polled (who actually responded to the questioning), few were able to provide convincing evidence to security researchers that their data governance practices were adequate to ensure the safety of the data they were collecting.
Specifically, encryption, the use of passwords, or general IT security best practices were absent in the wireless transmission of data between vehicles and the car companies. And software updates transmitted over the network were likewise unencrypted, allowing for the possibility of tampering.
Much of this is attributed to the lack of formalized security standards for smart car data-handling. It’s hoped that future legislation may firm up these practices, and provide greater safeguards for driver information.
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