The risks – and rewards – of smart cars

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Proponents of self-driving cars like to talk about the lives that will be saved and the convenience of the new technology. But there’s a flip-side of that, with cars gathering information on your destination, what you’re doing or saying — even your health.

The risks versus rewards were debated at the Detroit auto show Wednesday.

Jacqueline McCarthy, who CTIA, which lobbies for the U.S. wireless communications industry in Washington, said the cars that automakers are displaying at the auto show reveal a trend toward connectivity that appears to be irreversible.

“A lot of the innovations here on the floor are based on connectivity, to other cars, to infrastructure, to the internet,” she said during a panel hosted by her organization. “Certainly we know it brings a lot of benefits, but it also brings risk.”

Some argued that self-driving cars will make passengers safer by eliminating driver errors.

“A connected vehicle will save lives,” said panelist Gary Streelman, of Magneti Marelli Electronics Infotainment Navigation & Telematics.

A lot of accidents are due to driver inattention, he said. “When you look at that situation and say how we are going to fix that, you really need to fix the driver.”

Steelman said technology that is used now in connected cars will be useful even when cars are completely driverless.

“Autonomous vehicles are to use sensors with radar, lidar cameras to be able to sense what is around them, but they typically don’t see around corners, they don’t see in front of other vehicles,” he said. “This is where the connected vehicle adds to the safety for the autonomous vehicle.”

Panelist Robert Heath Jr., a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, agreed, saying: “If there’s an obstruction, there’s a corner or you’re stuck in traffic, you can’t see beyond what the human driver sees.

“Communication is a way to get information in these obscured areas there,” Heath said. “It allows you to get better situation-awareness. You can enhance safety, you can have more interaction between vehicles, they operate more efficiently, they can drive faster, you can reduce the gap and you can basically serve the human driver better as well.”

Panelist Jennifer Dukarski, an attorney based in Butzel Long’s Ann Arbor office, struck a cautionary note. She said automakers will have to grapple with privacy concerns as cars are collect an increasing amount of data about drivers.

“When you hop into a car, used to be you had the four doors surrounding you, your windows up, you didn’t expect anybody to watch you,” she said. “That old legal expression of reasonable expectation of privacy would suggest everything that happens in the car stays in the car and nobody needs to know.

“But the minute that you connect to any of your platforms, the minute that your vehicle is looking at you, taking pictures of you, checking your blood pressure, or like for those who were at CES, if you got to see the brain to vehicle interface that Nissan was demoing, taking your brain waves and mapping them to your steering ability,” Dukarski continued.

“Now that the car is collecting that type of data, it brings a few new concerns to mind,” she concluded. “As a repository of personal health data, facial recognition data, we need to start talking about what privacy laws are implicated.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing