How data is set to replace people behind the wheel in driverless cars
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Today’s cars are shifting gears, and data is more important than horsepower when it comes to the future of mobility. Mobility-related technologies are evolving rapidly, transforming the safety and convenience of transportation. These technologies promise to increase safety, convenience, and efficiency as we approach the Jetsons future we have all been promised.

Many of these new features are enabled by the collection of new types of data, putting the topic of privacy in connected cars on the agenda of industry, policymakers, and regulators. Tomorrow, the Federal Trade Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will host a workshop on the privacy and security issues around automated and connected vehicles. This is the first workshop co-hosted by the two agencies, and their partnership is a recognition of the convergence of the automotive and technology sectors.

The benefits of connected cars hinge on the ability of cars to communicate with each other, and with infrastructure, to know what is ahead. Our cars are becoming part of a trusted mobile ecosystem that ensures data flows between a network of carmakers, vendors and others to support individuals’ and businesses’ safety, logistics, infotainment, and security needs. Much of this data is protected by technical controls, laws, self-regulatory commitments, privacy policies, and other emerging mechanisms or controls.


But despite wide anticipation and news hype about self-driving cars in our near future, not everyone understands that most new cars today are connected in some way. As the automotive sector becomes more data-intensive, conversations like the ones taking place at the workshop tomorrow are vital for fostering informed and constructive consumer protections.


But the industry also needs to reach farther, to communicate with the businesses and consumers who sell, purchase, and drive connected vehicles every day. In order to ensure these vehicles become part of a trusted mobile ecosystem, we need to start considering how to make sure that consumers understand the data flows in their cars that power these new features.

To that end, today FPF released an infographic, “Data and the Connected Car – Version 1.0.” It describes the basic data-generating devices and flows in today’s connected vehicles, and seeks to help consumers and businesses alike wrap their heads around the emerging data ecosystems that power incredible new features—features that can warn them of an accident up ahead before they see it, or jolt them awake if they fall asleep at the wheel.

It also describes the universe of features that may be included in today’s connected car, but not every new car has or will have each of these specific features. Some have become standard, like Automatic Emergency Braking, and others are first takes on new technologies that are likely to change over time. And many of the data flows described are protected by technical controls, laws, self-regulatory commitments, privacy policies, and other emerging mechanisms and controls.

The infographic accompanies a project we launched earlier this year, a first-of-its kind consumer guide to personal data in your car. The guide includes tips to help consumers understand the new technologies and data flows in their car. It describes common types of collected data, the privacy principles that nearly all automakers have committed to, and includes a “privacy checklist” for renting or selling a car. Did you delete your synced contacts list? How about your garage door programming? And don’t forget to wipe your home address on that navigation system! These easy, simple steps can help consumers protect their own data and start thinking about the types of information involved in today’s new mobile ecosystem. 

Improvements and benefits of connected vehicle technologies are crucial to addressing the 94 percent of car accidents that are caused by human error. But we need to foster transparency and communication around consumer data use in order to deploy them responsibly. The conversations between lawmakers, consumers, and businesses such as those happening tomorrow need to go beyond the current day and focus on building trustworthy data practices—and communicating them—as vehicles advance. We think that explaining cars’ data-transmitting devices and flows is an important first step.

Jules Polonetsky is CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum. Lauren Smith is a policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum and leads the Connected Car Working Group.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.