Safeguarding the data that power safer cars
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In our parents' and grandparents' time, cars were simply a means to get from Point A to Point B.

No longer. Cars are in the fast lane to becoming supercomputers on wheels, and that will change the way we live our lives.

Connected car technology will transform the safety and convenience of the vehicles we drive. A full 94 percent of the 32,675 fatalities in car accidents last year were caused by accidents involving human error. The Department of Transportation believes that connected cars can drop the number of fatalities to zero, and has accordingly launched efforts to accelerate the introduction of vehicle-to-vehicle communication and autonomous vehicles.


These safety improvements hinge on the ability of cars to communicate with each other, and with infrastructure, to know what is ahead. Decisions that were previously manual or mechanized are now algorithmic, relying on data inputs collected from each of the many new kinds of sensors being built into cars.

Our cars will become data-crunching devices that function more like computers and smartphones than the mechanical chassis to which we are accustomed. Some of these new features are already so critical to safety that respected auto safety experts at Consumer Reports are calling for them to be mandatory, and even plan to rate cars poorly that do not have them in the future.

Technology integrated into cars can now enable geolocation sensing for automatic crash notification and traffic updates, biometric data to inform deployment of smarter airbags and driver alertness, along with infotainment like seamless music and app sharing between mobile devices and the vehicle. Moreover, new car technology has the power to not only to increase the safety of our roads, but also transform mobility as we know it. This technology can enable autonomous vehicles, leading some carmakers to already shift to the idea of shared car "fleets" accessed through apps as a model for our driving future, rather than individual car ownership. This could be game-changing for the disabled and elderly who face challenges that could for the first time be alleviated through connected car technologies.

All of this raises timely issues about the responsible collection and use of these data and how such data are communicated to consumers. Federal Trade Commissioner Terrell McSweeney recently told the Connected Cars USA Conference that "[t]he connected car is going to revolutionize mobility as profoundly as the first cars did ... but we can only get there if the consumers trust the product they are getting into."

Some worry that connected cars will make location tracking and sharing ubiquitous and unruly. It will be important to help consumers understand how data are being used in order to help them feel comfortable with these advances. This can be done through a combination of outreach efforts, drivers' manuals and user interface design that will make these new features understandable and intuitive.

It is critical, at the front-end of the connected car revolution, to build responsible data practices into connected cars, just as we have in other new and unfamiliar technologies. Transportation policymakers have already been building in privacy considerations: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2014 issued an advisory to begin implementation of vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology, along with a report studying the issue. The study was based on the Fair Information Privacy Principles, the gold standard for privacy that establishes norms like data minimization, notice and choice, and transparency.

Great strides continue to be made in this space. The Auto Alliance and Global Automakers last year released "Privacy Principles For Vehicle Technologies And Services," and 20 car companies signed on to establish baseline principles for privacy in this area. The principles are centered on transparency, choice, respect for context, data minimization, de-identification and retention, data security, integrity and access, and accountability — with a special focus on the most sensitive data collected, such as geolocation, biometrics, and driver behavior information. McSweeney has repeatedly noted that the Federal Trade Commission plans to hold signatory companies accountable to these principles.

As Washington policymakers give increasing attention to these new technologies, stakeholders across the connected vehicle ecosystem are providing thought leadership and action to enable connected cars. A working group of 60 of these experts focused on data privacy convened in Detroit last week to discuss both the challenges and promise of existing legal and self-regulatory standards, practical considerations and compliance, as well as communications and policy related to automotive privacy in connected vehicles.

With congressional and California State Assembly hearings taking place week, we need to ensure that rule-makings don't preemptively curtail the benefits that this technology can bring to society — such as California proposals that autonomous cars still require a human driver, preventing the elderly and people with disabilities from gaining these benefits.

The road ahead for the future of connected cars is exciting but uncharted, and twists and turns are to be expected — as happens in the emergence of new technologies. Bringing together data-conscious leaders from all parts of the automotive pipeline, and starting a constructive conversation about responsible data practices, is a timely step forward for the enabling of these important new technologies and protecting consumers' data as we move into a higher gear.

Polonetsky is CEO and Smith is policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum.