Proof of ownership
Today’s automobiles create and collect an enormous amount of data – but who owns it? Who can use it? And what can it be used for? Bob Williams investigates a potentially thorny issue…
Ford’s Vice President, Jim Farley, speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, tried to reassure Ford customers that Ford was responsible with the data it had available in current generation vehicles. “We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing,”… “We may know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it.”…. “By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.”
When Business Outsider broke the news the next day, far from reassuring Ford’s customers, Farley’s comments opened up a can of worms about the amount of data that is collected in a current generation automobile. In fact, it opened several:
- What data is collected?
- Why do automobile manufacturers collect this data?
- Can this data be used against the driver?
- Who owns this data?
- Who has a right to access this data?
What data is collected
“It would be easy to say the modern car is a computer on wheels, but it’s more like 30 or more computers on wheels,” said Bruce Emaus, the chairman of SAE International’s embedded software standards committee. But he understated the situation. Basic cars may have 30 or more computers, but some luxury cars may have more than 100s. Electronics represent 15-20 per cent of the cost of a modern vehicle and it is increasing every year. Of course they are not normally called ‘computers’ but ECUs, ‘Electronic Control Units’, or systems such as ‘SatNav’, ‘electronic stability control’, etc. Computer programs base their actions on data. So now there is a lot of data collected and used in a modern car.
These electronic brains control dozens of functions, including brake and cruise control and entertainment systems. Software in each unit is also made to work with others. The operation of a modern hybrid or electric vehicle is dependent on computers, and the efficiency and pollution control of hydrocarbon-based vehicles is dependent on computers.
That is the situation today. But as Thinking Highways readers are well aware, we are now fast moving into an environment of ‘connected vehicle and highway’ systems – cooperative ITS – in which significantly greater amounts of data will be generated, and stored for their legitimate use in service delivery.
So why do automobile manufacturers collect this data?
Well of course much of the data collection is transient to in-vehicle management systems to assist in the provision of an instruction in the next few milliseconds, seconds, or minutes, to another ECU or computer within the vehicle. The data is then redundant, and then erased or overwritten. But the data collected a few seconds or minutes before an incident is still captured in the memory and could be used for forensic analysis of the cause of the incident
But remember the Ford Explorer rollover and tyre problems? Ford had to pay out huge amounts of money based on the assumption that these factors were the sole cause of rollover injury and damage. They simply had no facts with which to defend themselves.
“The more we know about the risks drivers face on the road the better we know how to improve safety,” stated a Ford spokesman (Sherwood). GM were the first to introduce event data recorders (EDR), back in 1994. They cost the vehicle manufacturer not much more than €15/US$20. The purpose of the EDR was originally to monitor the performance airbags. But EDRs record all manner of valuable safety-related information such as: vehicle speed; whether the brakes were applied in the seconds before an impact; crash forces; throttle setting and whether the seat belts were being worn.
It has been estimated that, today, as many as 96 per cent of the cars mass-produced in USA now have EDRs. EDR data was crucial, for example, in analysing the unintended acceleration issues that affected some Toyota vehicles, enabling them to remedy a situation that was potentially far worse than the Explorer problems, before many deaths and injuries occurred.
The information an EDR captures could also be invaluable to not just carmakers, but insurance companies, highway engineers and, most critically, could be of use to police investigators looking to establish the cause of a crash. This fact is also not lost on many automotive manufacturers nor government. EDRs will shortly become mandatory for vehicles sold in the USA. Under the new regulation, carmakers will be obliged to provide a commercially available tool for copying the data.
Why are ‘black boxes’ important?
If all cars were fitted with data recorders, a major study commissioned in 2009 by the European Commission estimated that drivers would be 10 per cent less likely to be involved in a fatal collision and their repair bills would fall by as much as 25 per cent, say ETA Trust. More importantly than reducing repair costs, EDRs can help change the culture of accountability when vulnerable road users are involved in a road traffic collision.
Traditionally, in the absence of electronic data from an EDR, police are forced to rely on witnesses and physical evidence such as skid marks and the position of vehicles. EDR changes that, however, police require special hardware and software to access the captured data. Carmakers have been known to ask for court orders before they release the information.
Can this data be used against the driver?
There are two potential ways that data can be used against the interests of drivers.
(a) Law enforcement agencies could have access to the data;
(b) The car manufacturer could use data to prove that it was the driver and not a defect in the vehicle that caused an incident.
While both of these situations may work against the driver, it could be argued that they are not unfairly penalising, only identifying the true cause.
However, what driver is going to volunteer to pay to have equipment in the vehicle to ‘spy’ on him? And even if provided as part of the base vehicle equipment, many may seek to disable such functions, so unless there are safeguards, this will be a disincentive to have an ITS-equipped vehicle.
The regulation, and up to now, current systems, involve cable-based retrieval of data, so there is a reasonable level of control over access and use of this data, but as can be seen by the quotation from Ford’s Farley, automotive companies have been experimenting with wireless transmission of this sort of data – for example, BMW use it to schedule maintenance and alert dealerships of service needs. European automotive manufacturers are leading exploiters of this opportunity. As these telematics applications become more common, safeguarding data integrity will become a much more difficult issue.
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