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Data collection and security flaws will challenge autonomous carmakers

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Autonomous vehicles are just around the bend. As car companies continue to partner with tech and ride-hailing firms in an effort to innovate more quickly and effectively, questions arise about the future of privacy in the age of driverless cars.

The biggest players in the automotive industry seem to have downplayed the fact that innovation and convenience will come at a price. In this case, the price will be consumer privacy. While addressing questions on safety, key representatives from leading car companies, ride-sharing service firms, as well as tech giants have been deflecting questions on privacy issues from non-profit consumer watchdog groups.


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Yet in international meetings like those spearheaded by the World Economic Forum, the collective brains of various organizations have touched on the possible repercussions of spectacular advances in technology. Driverless cars are but one of these. A key message is that the very best entrepreneurial innovations come with dangers, like robbing people of humanity.

Massive data collection

For driverless cars to run efficiently and provide the most pleasant, hassle-free experience for passengers, a massive amount of data must be obtained and allowed to flow into the technology’s sophisticated sensors. Putting automated vehicles on the road entails learning everything about the environment and the consumers who will be using them. The more personalized driverless cars get — or the greater convenience such future innovations will offer – the more individual data must be incorporated into their services.

The big question is how the individual data will be used. This is a particular concern for the handling of personal and sensitive information that aid in the functionality of self-driving cars – such as real-time precise geolocation data and the contents of driver communications when drivers hook their mobile phones to the self-driving vehicle’s computer system.

Recently, the Washington, DC-headquartered Federal Trade Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held a workshop that examined consumer privacy and security issues posed by automated motor vehicles. The pivotal role that government agencies play in privacy and security issues related to connected vehicles were also discussed in this gathering of industry representatives, consumer advocates, academics, and government regulators.

The possibility of the enormous amount of autonomous vehicle data being exposed later on can be problematic, as lawmakers and other discerning groups including electronic privacy organizations noted, particularly if they end up becoming available for commercial use, for marketing purposes, or are simply used against consumers.

Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts matter-of-factly asked during a Congressional hearing whether car manufacturers will be able to undertake a minimum standard for consumer privacy protection. Representatives from GM, Google and the ride-sharing service Lyft were non-committal.

Google’s chief legal counsel did cite that it may be early to jump to worst case scenarios or conclusions on how all the data will be handled. Getting self-driving cars in the operational stage is the main preoccupation now of various firms. Those at the forefront of actualizing driverless technologies have been collaborating and working the past several years to deliver consumer products that can safely transport people.

Yet from an outsider’s point of view, one of the imminent downsides of the future cars — or the price of convenience — is surveillance. This has been glossed over as several car manufacturers and their tech partners go high gear in coming out with their versions of driverless automobiles. Discussions, to this day, have focused more on the merits, notably social good – from reducing carbon dioxide emissions to lowering road fatalities – that self-driving cars can offer.

Yet there are firms that uphold the fact that privacy issues are very important. Amnon Shashua, co-founder of Israeli firm Mobileye which develops technologies to enable fully autonomous vehicles, opined that organizations like Google or Uber do realize that privacy issue matters and concerns need to be addressed.

As key players continue to pilot the watchful public to the radical new transportation reality that is unfolding, futurists have noted how things will play out into some kind of cultural shift, not just a technological transformation. Moreover, it has been forecasted that by 2030, the self-driving car market may reach a staggering $87 billion, according to Lux Research.

Interrelated security issues

Government’s role in ushering the driverless cars of the future cannot be discounted. Michigan Senator Gary Peters has maintained that private industry should not have to deal with so many restrictions in formulating solutions and setting standards so that driverless car innovations will take off. To his mind, regulators ought to take a hands-off stance in dealing with private industry ushering automated car technology to get off the ground.

The Michigan senator’s industry-friendly stance on automotive cyber security is in contrast to the views presented so far by Senators Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal. Markey cited the importance of legislation to safeguard car owners from car hacking and protect to a certain extent driver data collected for connected vehicles.

Current focus has been on incorporating state-of-the-art technologies in self-driving cars to ensure that passengers arrive safely at their chosen destinations. Nonetheless, having clear rules of the road as well as being on guard against automotive cyber attacks are just as crucial.

Fortunately, the top brass of automotive companies, startup firms, and government regulators have taken stock of such future situations and are mulling on how to address them. Public information campaigns, as well as social media posts, are enlightening the public on how transformative technology (such as self-driving cars) will come with both benefits and risks, but that they will also quite helpful. It will be interesting to see how government entities and innovators in autonomous technology work together to safeguard consumers as the technology advances.

Ellie Martin is a writer whose work has been featured on Wisebread, AOL, and Yahoo!.  

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