In the future, cars will be data-collection machines

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

I miss “hello.”

After filling the tank of a new Hyundai Ioniq at the Speedway in Wisconsin, last summer I was greeted by the clerk, “Do you have your Speedy Rewards card?”

I answered: “If you give me $20 I’ll apply for one. You get my data, my name and phone number and all the other things on the application.”

This got the attention of another clerk, who abruptly said: “We can’t give you money.”

Then the first clerk added: “We don’t get any money from your information if you sign up. It’s free. You don’t even have to use your real name or number, just fill out the form.”

If I’ve ever heard of a broken system run rampant, this is it. To me it seems lately that many retailers stalk customers’ information. This info must be worth a lot.

How much: The value of data gathered from new-vehicle buyers may soon equal or exceed the price of their cars, according to a new book by a former head of developer technology at Ford Motor Co. That means buyers can expect free cars, the same way we expect free email accounts and free internet search services.

In “The Zero Dollar Car: How the Revolution in Big Data Will Change Your Life,” to be published in November, author John Ellis describes how he spent 2011 to 2014 counseling recently ousted Ford CEO Mark Fields about how “big data” was permanently changing the business model of all consumer products that contained computer chips, cheap data sensors and software, including cars.

Fields had stressed Ford’s new direction as a “mobility company” when he became CEO in 2014. He pushed a future of car sharing and driverless technology, which requires that vehicles be connected to many communication systems to operate — and which collects data on everything the car has sensed and seen.

Sophisticated sensors in cars can also detect gender, travel patterns and frequency of words spoken inside a car during a trip. That makes them potentially super valuable for gathering customer intention data. During his short tenure at Ford, Ellis emphasized that Ford, like all consumer product companies, should also label itself a software company to reflect this value.

The 50-year-old Chicagoan grew up as a tinkerer and computer geek riding the internet wave from its beginnings at Motorola. He eventually came to Detroit as a non-car guy, a “disrupter” in Silicon Valley-speak, to work at Ford during the turmoil of the awkward Ford SYNC infotainment system.

“The Zero Dollar Car” grew out of a popular lecture Ellis gave to the auto financing industry after he was fired from Ford.

The book brainstorms the data possible for a connected car to gather for sale to advertisers: weather conditions; license plate numbers; traffic speed and behavior, and how many times they weave out of lane as the drivers text while driving; where all drivers are going, have been, and what stores they shop at.

Ellis says the impact of this business model — where the car is a device to constantly gather and sell data of everything it passes while traveling — could toss the auto finance and insurance industry to the curb, and likely long before fully autonomous cars do the same thing.

The book asks: As insurance premiums change with the value of a car, what does insurance cover if the data-gathering software embedded in a car rises or drops in value from week to week?

For example, if a commuter’s Tesla Model S is producing $20,000 worth of data gathering every year for its software’s owner — either Tesla itself or Google as the data marketer or the car’s owner via a third-party application — how much is the vehicle worth to replace if it suffers a debilitating collision?

And my personal favorite: If all connected cars’ cameras can see traffic violators’ license plates, why do municipalities and states need troopers sitting on the sides of our highways with speed radar? And can the connected cars’ owners collect a piece of the ticketing revenue if their car has identified violators? Privately owned automated photo-ticketing machines currently collect hundreds of millions of dollars annually across the U.S., and these could be rendered obsolete by connected car cameras.

These days when I enter a fuel station and see a surveillance camera pointed at me, I can’t help but look at it, smile, and wave. Somebody could be selling this image data to somebody else and make me a momentary star each time I buy gas at Speedway.