Cars will soon be so linked into wireless networks they will be capable of harnessing an unprecedented trove of data the vehicles will produce about themselves and the humans who drive them.
The battle over who can access all this data is an awkward undercurrent amid recent announcements by car manufacturers touting their new Internet-capable vehicle systems.
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 track whether roads are slick or whether the driver is wearing a seat belt — information potentially valuable to police and insurance companies investigating crashes.
“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 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?"
In the U.S., proposed new federal highway safety rules would require all new cars by 2014 to come equipped with so-called “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.