Nineteen automakers accounting for most of the passenger cars and trucks sold in the U.S. have signed onto a set of principles they say will protect motorists' privacy in an era when computerized cars pass along more information about their drivers than many motorists realize.
The principles were delivered in a letter Wednesday to the Federal Trade Commission, which has the authority to force corporations to live up to their promises to consumers. Industry officials say they want to assure their customers that the information that their cars stream back to automakers or that is downloaded from the vehicle's computers won't be handed over to authorities without a court order, sold to insurance companies or used to bombard them with ads for pizza parlors, gas stations or other businesses they drive past, without their permission.
The principles also commit automakers to "implement reasonable measures" to protect personal information from unauthorized access.
Many recent-model cars and light trucks have GPS and mobile communications technology integrated into the vehicle's computers and navigation systems. Information on where drivers have been and where they're going is continually sent to manufacturers when the systems are in use. Consumers benefit from alerts sent by automakers about traffic conditions and concierge services that are able to unlock car doors and route drivers around the path of a storm.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also working with automakers on regulations that will clear the way for vehicle-to-vehicle communications. The technology uses a radio signal to continually transmit a vehicle's position, heading, speed and other information. Similarly equippedcars and trucks would receive the same information, and their computers would alert drivers to an impending collision.
"As modern cars not only share the road but will in the not too distant future communicate with one another, vigilance over the privacy of our customers and the security of vehicle systems is an imperative," said John Bozzella, president of Global Automakers, an industry trade association.
The automakers' principles leave open the possibility of deals with advertisers who want to target motorists based on their location and other personal data, but only if customers agree ahead of time that they want to receive such information, industry officials said in a briefing with reporters.
"Google may want to become an automaker, but we don't want to become Google," said Mitch Bainwol, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
The possibility of ads popping up on the computer screens in cars while drivers are behind the wheel worries some safety advocates.
"There is going to be a huge amount of metadata that companies would like to mine to send advertisements to you in your vehicle," said Henry Jasny of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "We don't want pop-up ads to become a distraction."
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., called the principles "an important first step," but they said it remains unclear "how auto companies will make their data collection practices transparent beyond including the information in vehicle manuals."
He said the principles also do not provide consumers with a choice whether sensitive information is collected in the first place.
"I will call for clear rules — not voluntary commitments — to ensure the privacy and safety of American drivers is protected," Markey said in a statement.
Industry officials say they oppose federal legislation to require privacy protections, saying that would be too "prescriptive." But Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said legislation is needed to ensure automakers don't back off the principles when they become inconvenient.
"You just don't want your car spying on you," he said. "That's the practical consequence of a lot of the new technologies that are being built into cars."
The automakers signing on to the principles are Aston Martin, BMW, Chrysler, Ferrari, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Maserati, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.