Privacy concerns raised over California "robot car" legislation

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Published September 14, 2012

| FoxNews.com

The dream of having your car drive you home is on the verge of getting a major boost. As early as January of next year, California may join Nevada in legalizing the use of autonomous cars, potentially allowing “drivers” to read the paper or catch up on e-mails on the way to the office.

But a consumer advocacy organization warns that the cars could do more than that, collecting personal information that could be shared with others, and is asking for a gubernatorial veto of the bill approving them, which was passed by the state legislature in August.

“The California autonomous car legislation does not provide adequate privacy protection,” says Consumer Watchdog spokesperson John Simpson. “Data should be gathered and retained only as long as necessary to operate the vehicle. The consumer must opt in if it is used for any other purpose.”

An amendment to the bill requires that automakers disclose to the driver if the car will share route and location information, but Simpson says the measure does not go far enough. He says there is not enough specific information about what encryption will be used, how the data will be shared, and some assurances that the data collected will only be used while the car is in autonomous mode. Gov. Brown has until September 30 to either sign or veto the bill.

So-called “robot cars” depend on data-sharing to find your route and keep you from driving off cliffs. They tap into GPS systems, use high-powered sensors that act like Doppler radar to identify other vehicles and can transmit data back to a central command center. Google has been conducting real-world tests of autonomous vehicles for several years, but the technology is not yet commercially available.

The tech giant came under fire in 2010 after it was discovered that cars it was using take street view photos for its Google Maps application were collecting information from unprotected WiFi networks. The company called it an inadvertent mistake and reprogrammed the cars' software to prevent it from happening again. 

Google responded saying, "We believe in providing strong protections for users and their information, and we're thinking carefully about all aspects of the user experience at each stage of project development. We're still early on in our development process, but we're excited by the potential of this transformative new technology."

Read: Google unveils driverless car tech

Recently, a fleet of conventional vehicles in Ann Arbor, Michigan, started using a new wireless signal called DSRC to help drivers communicate with thousands of other cars in a landmark trial run by the University of Michigan and the Department of Transportation, which is using wireless encryption to protect the data.

“To make autonomous cars work there needs to be substantial data sharing because every car in an area needs to know what every other car is doing regardless of whether it is being automatically driven or not,” says Rob Enderle, a consumer analyst. “And cars that are behaving dangerously need to be identified and either avoided or forced off the road to assure the safety of others.”

Enderle says this data could help the local police identify cars that are speeding, driving too slowly on the road, have made frequent unsafe lane changes, or even that have a dangerous mechanical defect. And there’s a good chance insurance companies could get involved. Today, insurance providers like Progressive offer an opt-in system that records a policy holder’s driving patterns for a rate discount.

“NHTSA is sensitive to the privacy concerns of drivers and will not be collecting sensitive personal information from drivers," a spokesperson for the NHTSA told FoxNews.com.

It’s conceivable that insurers, aware that your 2016 Ford Taurus is equipped with computer-controlled driving features, could offer a similar opt-in program for better rates. Computers can think faster, react quicker, swerve sooner, and apply the brakes more accurately than any human driver.

“In exchange for being able to use your iPhone while driving you'd pretty much lose all control over your car and your activities would be captured and recorded every time you were on the road regardless of whether you, or your car, were driving,” says Enderle. “We'd gain safety, we'd lose control and privacy.”

Driverless cars are not a far future concept. Ford recently revealed a new feature it is testing called Traffic Jam Assist that lets a driver take his hands off the wheel; the car maintains speed and lane position automatically. Cadillac is working on a technology called Super-Cruise works in a similar way. These advancements are intended to give the driver a break from driving duties for short periods.

Google has made the most progress, however. Its fleet of “autonomous” Toyota Priuses has travelled hundreds of thousands of miles in northern California where the driver is little more than an occupant while the computer does all of the work. To test these autonomous cars, Google received special permission from local authorities.

Next year, it may be legal to go for a road trip in your experimental robot car across the state of California. Whether the technology is ready, the laws are passed, and privacy groups are on board is yet to be seen.

Read: Who is winning the race to build a robot car?

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