Computerized cars may leave us all stuck in vehicular HOAs.
Cars used to be truly stupid. They had carburetors and crank windows and radios were optional. To start one the driver had to actually insert a metal key into a physical switch and turn it. They had cigarette lighters instead of USB ports, and ashtrays big enough to hold a dachshund. There weren’t any computers aboard because computers were bigger than houses and only NASA had them. Yup, cars were ignorant, inert slugs and no one knew anything different.
Those antiques are all gone. Either they were crushed and recycled decades ago, or they’re now weekend playthings most often found parked on lawns at car shows.
A new car spews out something like 25 gigabytes of data every hour it’s running and the carmakers, software powerhouses, mechanics, dealerships, insurance companies, tax and toll collectors and several startups now being sketched out on napkins at a Starbucks in Palo Alto are planning to leverage all that to their advantage. Only the owners and drivers of the cars seem to have no revenue-generation scheme in mind. Should they be worried? And if they are, does it matter?
“There’s a couple of ways I’d describe the challenge,” explains Joseph Jerome, who is policy counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology. “There’s the way that consumers think about ownership. You pay for something and you drive it off the lot. It is yours. Then there’s the ways companies are trying to think about data streams. And that’s where you get into disputes between aftermarket and the dealers versus the OEMs. Everybody is trying to get their hands on as much stuff as they can for reasons. To make money or for beneficial reasons. It’s a laundry list of stuff. They’re also trying to avoid liability issues. They don’t want to be blamed when something goes wrong or data is breached.”
At a fundamental level, your car is just one more device gathering data on your life. After all, that networked doorbell knows when someone is on the porch, a smart refrigerator can monitor your family’s dairy consumption, and that “phone” in your pocket is already tracking your every move, sharing photos, recording your texts and monitoring email. Cars are just one more stream feeding a massive data river.
Part of the problem here is that in order to use technologies such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto or any software that feeds your choice of music or podcasts or whatever into the car, we all kind of mindlessly agree to densely worded, small-print contracts no one reads and many assume are unimportant anyhow.