Most of us know we’re being spied on; by our own government, by other peoples’ governments, by our friends and neighbours, but not many of you will know we are also being spied on by the cars we drive.
An onslaught of gadgetry has made it into our cars, and we pay for this super-connected lifestyle with 21st century currency: personal information. Data, such as what you listen to, how fast you drive and where you’re going, is making its way into the hands of manufacturers, and often without us even knowing. Is this really all necessary? And if so, is it something to be worried about?
There are various ways your car plays the double agent. Let’s take a look at just a few.
Increasingly, insurance companies are offering to install telematics data recorders inside their customers’ cars, which can snitch on motorists if they drive badly. These so-called black boxes are able to detect your speed, acceleration, braking and how aggressively you negotiate corners, the idea being that they allow insurers to more accurately assess how likely (or unlikely) you are to end up driving backwards, through a hedge, on fire. Good drivers get cheap insurance and bad ones pay more – simple.
However, many drivers fear this approach will show them up to be more reckless than they actually are, leading to a rise in the cost of their policy – or worse. This fear was shown to be all too real when an 18-year-old driver, whose insurance black box had a curfew attached, raced home to avoid incurring a fine. His rush to avoid breaking the rules attached to his telematics device led to a crash in which both he and a friend were tragically killed.
It’s not just insurance companies that want to know where you’re going and how fast you’re going – this sort of information is also immensely valuable to police. Just ask TomTom – it wasn’t so long ago the Dutch company was discovered selling speed and location data from its Internet-conected sat-nav systems to local police, who used the information to set up speed traps. Understandably, many of its customers felt betrayed. The company later apologised publicly, saying it had sold the data anonymously believing it would be used to improve safety or reduce traffic.
Nowadays police don’t need a middle man. Modern cars can contact authorities as soon as an incident occurs. Take eCall, for example, another form of in-car telematics. This system connects to the outside world via a 2G mobile phone system and can, in the event of a severe crash, dial 112 on your behalf. While you’re incapacitated inside the mangled remains of your car, an emergency operator will speak to you and ask if you need assistance. If you fail to respond, they can obtain your location via an embedded GPS chip and send the emergency services directly to your location.
If you’re one of those people that don’t want your car talking to cops under any circumstances then tough luck – eCall will become mandatory in the EU from 2015. Indeed, some manufacturers have already started implementing it in their vehicles – BMW, Volvo and Peugeot to name a few.
In the US, black box data recorders will become standard on all new cars from 2015. These Mandatory Event Data Recorders will work much like the aforementioned insurance black boxes, recording driver inputs and car behaviour leading up to a significant event (read: crash). Scarily (or thankfully, depending on your perspective) the information taken from your car can be used against you in court.
Keeping it personal
Thankfully, not all the data your car records needs to end up in other peoples hands. Fiat’s Blue&Me system allows users to monitor the efficiency of their driving in the comfort of their own home, much like a telematics recorder might, without it being sent to third parties. Drivers can transfer the information from their vehicles to their computers via USB and can gain an insight into whether their driving style (aggressive acceleration, unnecessary braking etc.) is negatively affecting the amount of fuel they use.
Over the air
It’s not just cops and insurance companies that seek to extract data from your vehicle. Car manufacturers are at it, too. Most modern vehicles are kitted out with a wealth of computer hardware and software, and much of it can and does goes wrong. So companies like Symphony Teleca have developed ways to diagnose problems and fix them remotely via updates sent over the air directly to your vehicle.
Symphony Teleca’s InSight Connect VRM system can monitor for system failures remotely, diagnose problems, and in a few cases even issue a fix over the air, eliminating the need for drivers to visit a dealership.
Increasingly, car makers are doing their utmost to get their corporate paws on information concerning not just the car, but also the driver. Harman – best known for its JBL audio systems – has been developing sophisticated automotive infotainment systems designed to facilitate this.
The company’s Insight system can monitor how drivers use various in-car systems. It can, for example, analyse how frequently you use certain features, such as the CD player, and send that information back to the manufacturers via an integrated 3G SIM card (or the data connection from your own mobile phone). The idea is that it’ll allow manufacturers to make informed decisions about future designs (should they even bother installing CD players if the majority of owners prefer iPods?) and help them offer their customers better products at better prices.
Where things get really interesting is in Harman’s ability to provide access to Facebook and Twitter, services in which users tend to divulge a wealth of often very personal information. Harman reassures us that any personal data regarding Facebook is not stored or collected by Insight. That said, the company’s Aha infotainment system can collect personal data such as your name, date of birth, email address, physical address and phone numbers, and this can end up in the hands of third parties. Of course, this sort of practice is nothing new (we sign over our personal information regularly whenever we buy new products and services) but it’s something that’s about to become a whole lot more prevalent in the once-humble automobile.