Automakers working on protecting vehicle data privacy

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Major automakers are working jointly to ensure driver privacy in the face of growing concerns.

The Association of Global Automakers — the trade association representing Toyota Motor Corp, Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and other foreign automakers — and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the group representing U.S. automakers, Toyota, Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG and others — both say they are working together to ensure driver data privacy.

The two groups told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration late Tuesday they are working jointly to write consumer privacy protection principles. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, has raised concerns about driver privacy because of consumer data from GPS and in-vehicle systems.

“For the first time, the industry is working to adopt central concepts to demonstrate a unified commitment to the responsible stewardship of information used to provide vehicle technologies and services,” the Alliance wrote in comments echoed by Global Automakers. Both said the effort includes geolocation, driver behavior and biometric information. The data, the alliance said, needs to be “carefully protected.”

“The principles reflect the reality that automobiles increasingly make use of innovative technologies and services that are designed to enhance vehicle safety, improve vehicle performance, and enable a better overall driving experience. Many of these technologies and services in turn rely on the collection of data from vehicle systems. This data may include the precise location information of vehicles or information about how drivers operate their vehicles. This data deserves protection,” Global Automakers told NHTSA.

In February, Ford Motor Co. told Congress it collects limited data only after getting permission from owners — including keeping some vehicle travel data from SYNC services for up to 60 days. Ford said the data for turn-by turn navigation and other services “is used only to fulfill the customer request, to troubleshoot and to improve products.”

“I believe Americans have a fundamental right to privacy, and that right includes the ability to control who is getting your personal information and who it’s being shared with,” Franken said in February.

Separately, Global Automakers told NHTSA it supports making vehicle to vehicle communications required.

The group suggested NHTSA could offer incentives to get aftermarket systems into existing vehicles —by setting the same standards to ensure that those systems could communicate with new vehicle communication devices. But the alliance didn’t back a mandate and suggested that NHTSA should consider working with the Enviromental Protection Agency “to provide vehicle manufacturers credits for fuel economy standards since a reduction in crashes is expected to result in traffic efficiency gains and less fuel consumption.” The group wants NHTSA to give automakers credits for offering the technology before mandates are phased in.

Global Automakers said a mandate makes sense for the technology known as “V2V.”

“Any approach other than a mandate for the installation of V2V technology ... would not assure the necessary rapid and widespread deployment of the technology to assure the achievement of full safety benefits,” the group said. “A mandate is necessary to assure a single, nationwide set of specifications for V2V communications.”

Global Automakers also wants NHTSA to set standards for aftermarket devices for cars to ensure they are communicating properly with new car systems. Both groups are concerned that the Federal Communication Commission may open part of the 5.9 GHz wireless spectrum currently reserved for vehicle communications to use by other wireless devices.

Global Automakers noted that V2V technology “will not collect or store personally identifiable information, nor is it realistic that it will store sufficient GPS path location information to facilitate tracking of a vehicle. For these reasons, we do not believe that privacy concerns should be an impediment to the agency’s pursuit of a mandate for V2V systems, however, the importance of privacy to the public acceptance of V2V should not be underestimated. ”

Global Automakers wants NHTSA to delay setting performance rules for V2V systems until they are on the roads in big numbers and automakers have had “sufficient time to develop innovative systems and respond to market feedback.”

In August, NHTSA unveiled a notice that it was planning to write rules and unveil a proposal by 2016.

The biggest benefit will be at intersections, where most crashes occur.

NHTSA said Left Turn Assist and Intersection Movement Assist could prevent up to 592,000 crashes and save 1,083 lives per year by providing advance warning of possible crashes. Left Turn Assist warns drivers not to turn left in front of a vehicle coming in the opposite direction and the other warns a driver if it is not safe to enter an intersection. Additional applications of the technology could also help drivers avoid imminent danger through forward collision, blind spot, do not pass, and stop light/stop sign warnings.

“By warning drivers of imminent danger, V2V technology has the potential to dramatically improve highway safety,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman. “V2V technology is ready to move toward implementation and this report highlights the work NHTSA and DOT are doing to bring this technology and its great safety benefits into the nation’s light vehicle fleet.”