Data driven: One day your car will know all your habits

Ian Thibodeau

Picture this: You’re checking your friends’ Facebook updates on the windshield display screen while your car drives you to the other side of town.

Suddenly, a coupon for a special deal at the Applebee’s a mile ahead pops up because the car remembers you stopped there two months ago. It asks if you’d like to pre-order your two-for-one special so it’s ready when you arrive. Then it sniffs out the spot closest to the front door and parks you.

It’s a scene that could play out in the not-so-distant future.

The average car already produces enough data from the engine, infotainment system and other components to fill an iPhone in less than an hour. As cameras, radar and sensors on self-driving cars begin to gather even more information, carmakers and auto suppliers are expected to sort that information and sell it to marketers eager to cater to your living-room on wheels. By 2030, some forecasts say all that data could have generated as much as $750 billion.

For now, data generated by vehicles doesn’t leave the automaker, where it is used to monitor performance to improve the next generation — or signal that it’s time for an oil change or other maintenance.

But Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett in May spoke of a time when Ford could pair global-positioning information with traffic data and work with a company like Starbucks so the car could tell the driver that one location has a four-minute wait, but the Starbucks three highway exits ahead has a shorter wait time.

Drivers could order and pay for their Frappucino before getting in the drive-through line, and it would be ready when they hit the window.

David Ploucha, president and CEO of Allen Park-based Control Tec, a company that works with carmakers to sift through data for the “important” nuggets, sees a future when a repair shop would know that a passing truck needs an oil change, and could “push” the driver a digital coupon.

Ploucha pointed to the GasBuddy mobile app, which already uses a user’s location to find the cheapest gas. He says if GasBuddy could connect with your car so it knew how thirsty it was and how much gas remained in the tank, it could send a push-alert as you approach a station with the cheap gas.

The “digital signature” that identifies your car will track your patterns and remember your habits, just like pop-ups on your smartphone remember you were shopping for sneakers a few weeks ago. “This is no different,” Ploucha said, “than browsing for whatever it is you’re looking for on Amazon.”

Rolling smartphone

It helps to think of a car as a big smartphone on wheels.

In the same way Apple and Samsung modify the next generation of phones based on data about how people use the devices, experts on automotive data say that patterns such as how fast you drive, how hard you brake or how much you drive are already used for improvements.

As more information is gathered, automakers make tweaks to a vehicle based on that information, according to Ploucha, and Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst with Navigant Research.

Ford Motor Co. recently gathered information on daily driving habits from 33,000 electric-vehicle owners through the MyFord Mobile app. The company was able to see how often the customers charged-up, when they charged and how far they drove between charges. That knowledge will help Ford develop its new electric cars, the company said.

There is a lot of data to be had: The average vehicle made in 2015 produces roughly 19 gigabytes of information every hour. By 2025, that will increase to 1,957 gigabytes per hour, which could fill 122 base-level iPhones.

Automakers are gearing up for that future. Ford expects its storage needs to grow 15-fold from the 13 million gigabytes of space it needs today. General Motors Co. has 12 million vehicles connected by OnStar on the road today; it has data warehouses across the country.

Who wants to share?

Customers will have to decide how comfortable they are with sharing all that information.

Christine Sitek, chief operating officer of OnStar, said GM has 500,000 customers enrolled in an insurance discounts program. Drivers consent to give insurance carriers access to information, like how often they hit the 80 mph mark or hit the brakes hard. Those who play it safe can get discounted premiums.

“Customers are willing to opt-in if they see value in the service provided,” Sitek said in an email.

In most cases, that information is not shared with outside companies without the driver’s consent. Details on what’s collected from the car through certain systems are laid out in the terms of use for telematics systems like OnStar, Ford’s Sync Connect, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ UConnect and Hyundai’s Blue Link. Like other online contracts, those terms are frequently in the fine print that many drivers don’t bother to read.

GM’s privacy statement says it may share the “information it collects about you or your vehicle ... with third parties for research and development purpose.” GM lists university research institutes that work on highway safety as an example of third parties. Ford in its privacy statement says it may share the information with companies within the “Ford family of companies or subsidiaries ... who are under a similar obligation to protect data.”

Agreeing to the terms allows the companies to collect information such as location and speed.

Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert who is chief technology officer of cybersecurity company IBM Resilient, said the data from a connected car isn’t much different than that collected from a phone. Still, he said, there are definite privacy concerns and potential for monitoring law-breaking behind the wheel.

“Do we want a society where you basically get a bill at the end of the month for the amount of speeding you did?” he said. “We might say ‘yes,’ but that’s a very different sort of world ... The privacy risks are real, but there’s so much privacy invasion it’s hard to get worked up about the additional privacy risks in a car when you’re carrying a cellphone.”

Automakers are looking at ways to compensate drivers for sharing information, possibly in the form of a lower monthly car lease payment, according to Ben Volko, CEO and co-founder of Otonomo, an Israel-based company developing this third-party marketplace.

Navigant’s Abuelsamid said, “(People) probably don’t have any more to fear than they do by using credit cars or the internet.”

But as in-vehicle technology gets more complex, and connected systems require more people to accept more muddled and lengthy terms of use, Abuelsamid worries customers might lose track of what’s being collected, and which company sees it.

As more third-party companies get involved, that data is at a greater risk to be leaked or hacked. He said automakers should provide customers with an easy-to-use portal where they can check out every provider with access to their data.

“Unfortunately, I don’t expect to see anything that user-friendly,” he said. “While data going to these companies is generally supposed to be anonymized, it’s often not hard to start making connections that can identify users. If those providers have a data breach, this can lead to privacy loss, identity theft and fraud.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau