Get ready for the next great user interface: Connected cars

Byron Acohido 26 Apr 2019

Big privacy and safety questions loom as cars and trucks begin accelerating the collection of even richer personal data than is now harvested by our smartphones

Remember when a cell phone was primarily for making phone calls? Now smartphones have become our go-to digital interface.

Remember when the family station wagon was mainly for getting from Point A to Point B? You may have noticed that connectivity has begun to saturate the cars we so love to drive, putting them on a fast track to become our next great user interface.

Irresistible forces are in motion that will soon transform cars and trucks into eco-friendly transportation pods controlled by software. These smart vehicles will be integrated into a wider software-driven infrastructure of smart buildings, smart transportation systems, and cloud-delivered consumer services.

The anticipated benefits are manifold. But there are major concerns that must be addressed as well, more so with respect to privacy than safety. Here are a few things you should know about the coming of connected cars.

Rising connectivity

Our cars are destined to join our smartphones in tracking and analyzing our behaviors during every waking moment.

Driving today requires a human’s full attention. But cars are rising steadily up the Society of Automotive Engineers’ zero to five scale of vehicle autonomy. Most cars today are at level 0: equipped with automated systems that can send warnings, and temporarily intervene, but are not able to control the vehicle on their own.

But more and more models are being delivered at level 2, where automated systems can take over steering, accelerating and braking, though the driver must stay ready to intervene. And a few models have achieved level 3, at which the driver can divert his or her attention for brief periods, say to watch a video or answer email.

Level 4 widens the circumstances under which self-driving can take place, and at level 5, human driving is completely eliminated. Wide use of level 5 vehicles will require the kicking into high gear of next-gen business networks that make intensive use of IoT and AI.

“The industry is trying to move toward a vehicle-to-everything (V2X) connected model where cars will not only talk to each other, but also to the infrastructure around them and possibly more,” Stacy Janes told me. Janes is chief security architect at Irdeto, an Amsterdam-based supplier of antipiracy software that’s working on connected car security.

Anticipated benefits

Going forward, connected cars will increasingly make life-or-death decisions about physical objects and other digital systems they can sense nearby, while at the same time collecting and storing troves of monetizable operational and personal data.

Captains of industry and political leaders are all eager to reap the benefits of autonomous transportation: more efficient travel, less pollution, improved vehicle utilization, and a leadership role for the United States in autonomous vehicle innovation, according to a 2017 report from The Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank.

And think about all the texting, emailing, banking, shopping, or binge-watching you can squeeze in — once you don’t have to rivet your attention on driving defensively.

Safety issues

Placing fragile humans at the mercy of autonomously, computer-guided vehicles implies safety risks. However, the major safety concerns are clearly delineated and should be straightforward to address. And experts say vehicle travel actually should be much safer with a computer behind the wheel.

By supplanting the vagaries of human judgment with machine-learning algorithms that get smarter as more data gets ingested, ground transportation will almost certainly become less deadly. There will be fewer weary truck drivers on the road, and fewer drivers, overall, glancing down at mapping apps, or texting while barreling down the highway.

Just like with air, train, and highway travel, a blend of rules and best practices will have to emerge to establish a safety level that’s acceptable to the general public. And that process is well underway.

Privacy concerns

The stickier matter is how to address a slew of murky privacy concerns. State and federal regulators have begun shaping regulations to address both safety and privacy concerns, and industry standards are being hashed out as well. However, it’s anyone’s guess at this point what blend of rules and best practices will ultimately emerge.

I’m personally concerned about how the rich data collected by our cars will be used for predatory marketing and ideological manipulation. The rich personal data collected by connected vehicles has already ignited behavior profiling controversies. USA Today, for example, disclosed that rental-car companies routinely fail to delete personally identifiable information that renters type into infotainment systems. And CBS News reports that carmakers have experimented with reselling blocks of location data to mapping vendors.

Consumers’ burden

As with any form of transportation, it will come down to state and federal regulators pushing back against commercial interest have begun shaping regulations to address both safety and privacy concerns, and industry standards are being hashed out as well. Consumer advocates and privacy rights groups already have begun pushing back against the insurance industry’s efforts to leverage data collected by connected vehicles in ways that might be unfair to individual citizens.

Elizabeth Rogers, a privacy and data security partner at Michael Best & Friedrich, believes that consumers should be prepared to make their voices heard. This is what she told me: “Consumers need to remain vigilant and exercise their rights to limit collection and use of any data that is collected . . .Varying levels of consent should be incorporated into the design of these systems, with express consent being required before sharing a consumer’s unique and individualized driver data.”

I agree. Talk more soon.

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