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From machine to mindset: Cars data and ethics in data analysis in the automotive industry

Imagine yourself sitting in the driver’s seat of a runaway trolley headed toward a fork in the track. Along one route are five incapacitated individuals, all strangers. Along the other is only one person, but it is someone you know: a close friend or relative. You have moments to choose which route to follow, both of which will end in someone’s death. Which track do you take? How do you justify your decision? 

This is the trolley problem, a common thought experiment in ethics. When philosophers first examined this hypothetical moral dilemma in 1905, few could imagine its very real implications with the rise of autonomous cars. Instead of a human controlling the trolley, what if it was a machine? Could it be trusted to make this kind of life-and-death decision? Should it?

As Google’s Waymo plans to launch the first fully autonomous cars in Phoenix, Arizona, this month, this hypothetical dilemma will soon become a reality. However, it’s not only a car’s behavior on the road that raises questions about the ethics of connected and self-driving cars; modern vehicles are already gathering, analyzing, and sharing extraordinary amounts of data about drivers and passengers, much of which will be used to make decisions that will transform the lives of commuters everywhere.

As human interference behind the wheel becomes less and less critical to our daily commute, data management and protection are becoming more important, especially because this data will ultimately be in charge of how we get from one place to another. In preparation for a new era of mobility, carmakers and manufacturers will need to consider the ethical decisions at the heart of this automotive transformation.

The dilemma of the digital ID

You could argue that the massive transfer of driver data, much of which could be leveraged in life-altering ways, is already well beyond the point of no return. The majority of today’s connected cars gather information on a near-constant basis, tracking mileage, location, car health, usage, and even drivers’ media consumption behind the wheel.

All this driver-specific data—a driver’s digital ID—doesn’t stay within the confines of a vehicle. Unknown to many drivers, carmakers own this data, at least for now. Companies that fail to get buy-ins from drivers before sharing drivers’ data often face disastrous consequences when consumers discover how much personal information is being shared without their consent.

Consider General Motors in 2011, when an amendment to its terms and conditions allowed OnStar to share vehicle information with other companies without customers’ explicit consent. This decision landed the automaker in a Supreme Court case in 2012 and prompted other car manufacturers to stay tight-lipped about their future plans for data collection.

The issue is poised to become even more complex as expectations of a vehicle’s data-driven capabilities continue to grow. Drivers may hand over data if they understand the reason for doing so, such as receiving something in return like more intuitive maintenance reminders and safety enhancements. However, in the past, automakers neglected to get drivers’ explicit consent before sharing their information, leaving many drivers feeling hoodwinked by this seemingly unfettered sharing of their personal information.

As consumers become more aware of the pitfalls of data privacy, automakers will need to create airtight strategies to get consumer buy-ins for the way driver data is used and handled. Failure to do so may risk harming consumer trust and loyalty and land manufacturers in court.

Data protection and privacy: Who Is responsible?

Companies aren’t only under pressure to rein in deliberate data sharing; these companies must also consider how to store and protect that data, especially because data privacy is a growing concern among consumers.

According to a recent report by the TRUSTe/National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) Consumer Privacy Index, more Americans worry about their data privacy than about losing their main source of income. This viewpoint poses a challenge for automakers that have long staked their brand perception on drivability and in-car luxury and not necessarily on robust data security and privacy features.

On the front end, OEMs may need to make UI adjustments that proactively request driver consent, give users consistent access to their privacy settings, and allow greater user control over permissions. More holistically, OEMs may need to shift their entire car design strategy to address data security concerns before new models reach the road. As consumers increasingly expect their vehicles to operate like tech devices on wheels, auto companies will need to think like tech companies, as well as carmakers, in order to keep up with customer demand.

Life and death is in the data

Though plenty of the data-driven advancements in today’s auto industry are changing the lives of commuters, we have yet to see a car that has the autonomy to make a life-and-death decision, but that reality may not be far off.

As autonomous cars make increasingly sophisticated driving decisions, it’s only a matter of time before car data is used to mitigate injuries and fatalities on the road. For example, the data our cars collect could be used to minimize the number of deaths in unavoidable collisions, depending on how they occur. Also, an autonomous car’s internal sensors could feasibly detect a health crisis of someone within the vehicle and call emergency services.

As commuters become more dependent on advanced vehicle technology, car data will soon be a critical element in autonomous vehicles’ broader goal of making drivers safer. For carmakers, this means considering safety in how a car is built as well as how and when it uses data.

The challenge ahead

Before long, automotive companies and commuters will face ethical dilemmas far more complicated than the hypothetical trolley situation. Car companies have always understood the important role they play in the lives of drivers, but the growing importance of car data is set to change the way drivers and carmakers think about security behind the wheel.

Auto companies will be on the frontlines of the charm offensive needed to sway public opinion on data security, privacy, and driver safety. It’s the responsibility of these companies to help consumers understand that the sharing of driver data brings greater road safety and fewer fatalities. In time, this understanding will lead to acceptance, and because public opinion on autonomous vehicle safety remains uncertain, doing so is critical if automotive companies expect to see their investments in autonomous technology grow.

Though full adoption of autonomous cars is still well on the horizon, automotive companies must prepare now for the implication of data-driven mobility. Only then will consumers be able to trust their vehicles to protect them both on and off the road.

Consumers’ expectations regarding the driving experience are already changing — automotive brands today will need to think bigger than behind the wheel. In this multi-installment series, we’ll continue to uncover how transforming expectations about the driving experience will alter both the automotive industry and society as a whole.


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