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Privacy: Are self-driving cars headed towards a brick wall?

Posted: 12 Jun 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Audi  Google  autonomous driving  public space  remote tracking 

During the recent years, the concept of both "space" and "privacy" has been obscured by the fact that almost every company, who uses both terms when they are referring to their products, has been releasing their own (read: self-serving) definitions. In fact, nowadays, it's almost impossible to judge whether a "space" is private or public, in light of the reality that whatever technology we carry regularly collects and sends out data from wherever we are, via smartwatch, smartphone or the system in the family car.

Not long ago, during an EE Times Radio Show on "Why Connect a Car?," one astute reader posed a question, which I paraphrase: "Is the data collected via autonomous cars considered 'public domain,' since it was obtained on public roads?"

We're all aware of the Orwellian nightmares about the possible impact on privacy of remote tracking in autonomous cars.

On one hand, I suspect that monitoring, tracking and remotely controlling autonomous cars is probably a necessary evil for the safe operation of self-driving cars.

On the other hand, I admit that I know little about legal grounds for collecting such data. Do I want Big Brother to know where I've been in an autonomous car? Is it OK for Big Brother to share that data with somebody, anybody, everybody? How will my passengers' data be protected? What are the legal obligations for carmakers in the future?

Car as one's second living room

Then I came across comments made by Audi CEO Rupert Stadler at an event in Berlin. He reportedly said: "A car is one's second living room today." He said, "That's private. The only person who needs access to the data onboard is the customer."

Stadler's point: "Audi takes privacy seriously."

Considering that the Berlin event was also attended by Google's Eric Schmidt, Stadler's comment probably was a calculated move to draw a contrast between Audi's autonomous cars and Google's brainchild, the Google Car.

Google's business is built on computers that perpetually troll our data, wherever we might have been. Google Cars extends Google's reach to the public roads where cars run.

So, when the Audi honcho calls a car "our second living room," I feel a breath of fresh air. It's not just Audi taking a stringent line on guarding customer data. Germany's auto industry, including Audi's rival Daimler, has lobbied regulators to take a restrictive line on data privacy.

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