Low on gas? Soon a gas station app may know before you do. Tires need rotating? Your car may wirelessly alert your dealership when it’s time. Ready for a lunch break? Your car can make a reasonable guess based on the hour. A savvy restaurant app may soon use additional detail, such as whether the person in the back seat is watching a Disney movie, in deciding to offer an advertisement featuring a Happy Meal and directions to the nearest McDonald’s.
Cars have long gathered data to monitor safety and performance. But their newfound connectivity may allow a range of parties — automakers, software developers, perhaps even police officers — new access to such information, privacy advocates say. Because few U.S. laws govern these issues, consumers have little control over who can see this data and how it can be used.
More than 60 percent of vehicles worldwide will be connected directly to the Internet by 2017, up from 11 percent last year, predicts ABI Research. In North America and Europe, that percentage is likely to reach 80 percent.
Many cars already record their speed, direction and gear setting, as well as when brakes activate and for how long. Newer systems also can track whether road surfaces are slick or whether the driver is wearing a seat belt — information potentially valuable to police and insurance companies investigating crashes. (Some car insurance companies already monitor driving behavior in exchange for discounted rates.)
“The cars produce literally hundreds of megabytes of data each second,” said John Ellis, a Ford technologist who demonstrated some of the new Internet-based systems at the company’s display at the Mobile World Congress, which ended last week in Barcelona. “The technology is advancing so much faster than legislation or business models are keeping up. . . . What can government do? What can you do?”
Such issues go beyond vehicles. Many of the nearly 1,500 exhibits at the Mobile World Congress touted technology fueled by personal information. Thermostats, health sensors, even Dumpsters, can function better, according to companies exhibiting their products here, if individual behavior is tracked.
In the United States, proposed new federal highway safety rules would require all new cars by 2014 to come equipped with “black boxes” to save vehicle information from the final seconds before and after crashes. The plan has prompted several privacy groups to lobby for an explicit declaration that data produced by a vehicle is owned by the motorist, with authorities having access only under certain conditions.