In Google’s Future, Drivers May Exchange Their Data for Infotainment and Other Features

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Drivers will continue to enjoy a growing assortment of connected features in their vehicles—as long as they’re willing to share some personal information.

That might be the automotive future that Google envisions. In a recently published patent application, the company describes a system and method for delivering a wide range of content to motorists—everything from music to turn-by-turn directions. Access to that content is contingent on consumers agreeing to divulge data on their driving behavior and whereabouts. Motorists who agree to those terms might be offered steep discounts by insurance companies for cautious driving and receive coupons from nearby restaurants and shops. But those who refuse to share personal information face the prospect of being unable to use their favorite features.

Google patent - data infotainment

“Handling content involves controlling how content is acquired and provided to a vehicle system,” the application says. “Content is restricted by requiring at least one transfer of vehicle-related information.”

A patent application shouldn’t be confused for a firm business plan, but should the company continue to develop the concept, Google’s system would control every potential pathway into the car—internet, satellite communications, hotspot gateways, cellular networks, GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB ports, OBD-II ports typically used for vehicle diagnostics, video systems, telematics systems, personal devices, smartphones, and more, according to its application.

Stop to consider what else Google might do with data that details when, where, and how you drive—reselling it to other interested parties, for instance. —National Motorists Association president Gary Biller

In exchange for vehicle content, Google might want details that include data about the vehicle itself—mileage, condition of certain components like tires, details on serial numbers of vehicle systems, and the like. It may also demand information on the occupants, including the types of content they’ve stored in vehicle systems, preferred genres of music, video content,  and more.

With a company like Google, which has interests in the automotive realm that run from autonomous cars to its Android Auto phone-projection system, the consolidation of control worries John Simpson, director of the Privacy Project for Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit organization that has tracked Google’s automotive efforts and frequently criticizes the company’s privacy practices.

“This is an egregious invasion of a motorist’s privacy, and I do fear that people who refuse to provide personal data will be unfairly locked out of infotainment systems,” he said. Going further down the line, Simpson said, “The privacy concerns are even greater with self-driving autonomous vehicles. Google could easily offer a self-driving car that would only operate if personal data were turned over to the company.”

Google patent - data infotainment

The general concept of such a system isn’t new, nor is it limited to Google. The company’s patent application is an updated version of one originally filed in November 2005, and the idea of serving up advertisements to captive vehicle occupants is a potentially lucrative one that dozens of companies are chasing in the burgeoning connected-car era.

“Across the automotive landscape, we’re seeing increasing initiatives from car companies and partners to offer discounts to participate in this bigger value chain,” said Jeffrey Hannah, director of North America for SBD, a global automotive consulting and research company. “At the end of the day, it’s ‘who will own connected-car data and how will it make it from the car to all these third parties?’ ”

How Data Can Be Culled and Used

What the latest patent application provides, beyond perhaps an attempt to lay claim to intellectual-property rights for such a system, is the idea of restrictions for those who don’t opt in and specific insight on how Google foresees that in-car advertising marketplace developing. A Google spokesperson declined comment, but here are a few examples the company cited in its documentation for how it would use data it collects from consumers:

  • A leasing or rental-car company could provide media or discounted rates in exchange for certain information on location, driving statistics, consumer preferences, average speed, or “other information useful to the agency.”
  • An auto-repair shop could offer music or other entertainment features as an incentive for using its services. In exchange for that media, users would transfer details on such as mileage, service history, and vehicle identification numbers so the repair shop can send service reminders.
  • A gas station could purchase the rights to distribute a song. Customers could only download that song if they purchased, for example, 12 gallons of gas from that gas station. A processing enabler monitors the fuel consumption and enforces this restriction.
  • A satellite-radio provider agrees to provide content in exchange for vehicle owners’ participation in traffic studies, providing GPS-based location information and navigation information.

Car companies already harvest vehicle and driver data, and ownership of that data has become a contentious issue. In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned automakers that they needed to better explain what information they collected and with whom it was shared. At about the same time, California’s state senate considered legislation that would ensure motorists maintain ownership of their data.

Privacy Is “No Longer Assured”

Even if such legislation was enacted, motorists might own their data, but a company like Google could still control the pathways for data into and out of a vehicle. What separates Google from its counterparts is that it has become a leader in self-driving development and gained a foothold in infotainment with Android Auto, which will be installed in more than 2.5 million vehicles this year alone, according to SBD estimates. By harnessing and extending the power of those systems, Google could one day compile comprehensive portraits of individuals.

Gary Biller, president of the National Motorists Association, says the collection of information may seem innocuous on the surface—but, particularly as self-driving cars develop and learn detailed information on drivers’ daily habits, there’s cause for concern.

“Stop to consider what else Google might do with data that details when, where, and how you drive—reselling it to other interested parties, for instance,” he said. “Suddenly, your privacy, even the anonymity of your moment-to-moment whereabouts, is no longer assured. There are some very interesting developments with the advent of connected and autonomous vehicles, but motorists must be careful not to automatically cede their right to privacy when accepting the new technologies."

While not discounting those privacy concerns, SBD’s Hannah says those who hold them should not underestimate the potential value and benefits of a Google-like system for consumers who are increasingly seeking seamless ways to bring their smartphones into their cars.

“Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are solving an important need,” he said. “Now you can imagine a world of unique content from various places, and it’s piped in through the common interface of the car. One value added is that Google is very good at things like security. With numerous content alliances at its disposal already in place, you can ensure the content is from a trusted source, rather than 50 different feeds coming into the car.”

For better or worse—maybe a bit of both—the Google patent application is a reminder that car owners need to know a lot more about their cars, because their cars already know a lot about them.

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