Self-driving cars are a privacy nightmare. And it’s totally worth it.

May 21, 2013

Will self-driving cars let the government track your every move? Greg Beato says yes, and Randal O'Toole disagrees. Beato is right: Self-driving cars will make it easier for the authorities to track you everywhere you go. But the benefits of self-driving cars are likely to be so enormous that American consumers will sign up in droves, regardless of the privacy implications.

Google self-driving car
(Cars.com)

We know this because American consumers have already enthusiastically adopted a technology that allows the government to track their every movement: the cellphone. To complete incoming calls, your cellphone company needs to know where you are at all times. A few brave souls have rejected the technology on privacy grounds, but most have signed up without giving it a second thought.

The story will be much the same for self-driving cars. "None of the self-driving cars being developed by Volkswagen, Google or other companies rely at all on central computers. Instead, all the computing power is built into each car," O'Toole writes. It's true that self-driving cars won't be directly controlled by a central computer. But there are several reasons to expect self-driving cars to be equipped with always-on cellular connections.

The most important is safety. Software bugs in a self-driving car are a matter of life or death. So companies in charge of self-driving software will want a mechanism to push out software updates as soon as they are ready. Waiting until a vehicle happens to be near a WiFi connection could lead to preventable accidents.

An always-on wireless connection has other benefits, too. It can alert vehicles to hazardous conditions such as slippery roads, flooding or collapsed bridges. It can provide real-time traffic updates, allowing autonomous vehicles to automatically route around traffic jams.

And a cellular connection will be essential for vehicles to navigate without anyone inside them. This will allow them to drop off their passengers at the door and then look for parking farther away. It will make possible driverless taxis, which will be affordable to many more people. Such cars will need a wireless connection so they can be hailed when needed.

So self-driving cars will have an always-on wireless connection, which will make them inherently trackable. And while that will alarm some privacy advocates, the benefits of self-driving cars dwarf the potential harms. Cars driven by human beings kill about 30,000 people each year in the United States. Self-driving technology could dramatically reduce that figure. Self-driving technology will enable expanded car-sharing, saving thousands of acres currently wasted on parking lots. And the technology will free up billions of person-hours currently devoted to the drudgery of commuting every year.

Fights over privacy in the self-driving future will focus on many of the same issues that are currently being debated with regard to cellphones. Governments currently claim broad power to seek location records from cellphone companies without judicial oversight. Reforming those laws to require the government to get a warrant before seeking historical records for a cellular connection would protect the privacy of both mobile phone users and self-driving car passengers.

Better data retention policies could also enhance users' privacy. If companies delete information about users' locations promptly, that would reduce the potential for the information to be abused later.

Finally, some privacy-conscious consumers buy prepaid cellphones to avoid having their calls linked to their identities. Self-driving taxi companies may offer similar options for those who want to travel without leaving a trail.

But opposing self-driving technology because of the privacy concerns makes about as much sense as opposing cellphones for privacy reasons.

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Dylan Matthews · May 21, 2013