Opinion

How Car Data Can Save Time, Lives And Repairs — Without Sacrificing Privacy

Gary Shapiro President and CEO, Consumer Technology Association

Soon, our cars will be able to provide and share real-time data — such as windshield-wiper activity, drive times and outside temperatures — that can keep us safer on the road.

Car companies will be able to aggregate, geotag and share this data with weather reporters and local government officials who make school-closing or public-safety decisions. The benefits of car-data collection and consumption are about to be realized in life-changing ways.

These automotive data-collection systems will be on display at CES 2016 in Las Vegas the week of Jan. 4. Nine carmakers and more than 115 automotive tech companies will be exhibiting their technological advances at the annual consumer electronics trade show.

The Vehicle Intelligence Marketplace at CES 2016 will showcase, among other things, the latest in car-safety tech, such as parking assistance, collision avoidance, emergency braking and in-vehicle communications. They are all making cars safer and drivers more connected.

As the technology in our cars advances, we have to balance real privacy and surveillance-state concerns with the fact that not all privately generated information must be considered fully private and protected. While guarding consumer-privacy interests is important, we must not undercut the benefits that data can provide to convenience, consumer safety and the environment.

Consider real-time data on traffic bottlenecks or icy road conditions. Other following drivers, public safety and transportation officials would benefit from having this data immediately, so they can act quickly and prevent accidents. Drivers are generating reams of useful information as they traverse our roadways. Car companies should not be handcuffed by outdated government mandates to limit the sharing of this data.

Potholes — a year-in, year-out problem in colder climates — could be solved more quickly by data-sharing. If trailing drivers and city officials had instant access to pothole data, the cars that follow could slow down and avoid car damage, and city officials could deploy road-service crews faster and more efficiently.

On a more personal level, parents should be able to monitor their children’s driving. And law enforcement officials with valid subpoenas should be able to access car records to aid in investigating life-threatening situations. Knowing where a car has been and how it has been driven could be vital to solving missing-persons cases.

Or what about data for first responders to a major accident? Soon, car seats will be monitoring driver health and alertness. If the condition of a driver or passenger could be immediately assessed by first responders, triage and the most appropriate treatment could be deployed, thus saving lives.

Moreover, wouldn’t we want to know the physically measurable circumstances of fatal accidents as recorded by cars, even if it intrudes somewhat on privacy? Isn’t avoiding further tragedy a worthwhile rationale, trumping privacy concerns? The whole point of mandatory airliner flight recorders is to turn tragedy into prevention. If we have access to lifesaving information, let’s learn from it.

Some data collected by our cars is so valuable to the public good, and so inconsequential personally, that car companies should be encouraged to share it. In theory, cars equipped with onboard navigation systems can identify where collisions could occur and air bags deploy. Maps can and should be provided to local officials showing frequent-accident locations. Unfortunately, most of this data is collecting cobwebs because of ambiguous laws or privacy concerns.

Not everyone is sitting idly by when it comes to data collaboration. Already, we’ve seen examples of how sharing car data can make cities more livable. In Boston, for example, ride-hailing service Uber is leading the way with a pilot program to use its data for the public good. Earlier this year, Uber teamed up with city officials for a first-of-its-kind partnership to make the city “more livable, resilient and innovative.”

Trip distance and duration are aggregated by ZIP code and anonymized to ensure customer privacy. The partnership is helping to manage urban growth, relieve traffic congestion and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Meanwhile, Allstate’s newly released Drivewise app collects telematics information through drivers’ smartphones, and uses this information to potentially lower premiums and connect with drivers on a more personal level. Drivers report that the app helps them adapt their driving practices to be safer — and save money.

Cars are rapidly changing. In many ways they are indeed our largest mobile connected device. What makes the data gathered by our cars truly valuable is that thousands of data points are aggregated, and aggregated data by its very nature protects privacy.

Let’s have an honest discussion about the benefits of public safety and personal privacy before we rush to regulate big data. Our privacy is sacred, but not sacrosanct.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)TM, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling booksNinja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro