Your Car Is Following You: Will It Be A 'Data Monster'?

You knew this was going to happen. The next-generation car is emerging as the personal big-data creator poised to worry regulators, watchdogs -- and, apparently, even automakers themselves. As telematics turns the dashboard into an infotainment system and connectivity reaches into the cabin, the family car becomes yet another piece of the Internet of Things. From travel patterns to traffic snarls, speed records to cross-matching entertainment decisions with physical contexts, the potential data land grab here is impressive. And consider the amount of video being captured by rear-view parking cams and dashboard recorders. The big data aggregator in the cloud will be an invisible passenger.

We have already seen tests of location-targeted ads penetrating the telematics dashboard. Sandwich shop Quiznos has been experimenting with geo-fencing via the in-car network from Aha by Harman and local mobile ad platform Placecast. When you enter a geo-fenced area, a Quiznos audio ad is inserted into the stream. A tap on the interface emails a coupon for your mobile device to pick up and use in the store.



Remember when the car was an emblem of American freedom from place? An entire century of auto marketing in the U.S. was arguably grounded in aligning the car with the physical vistas of the continent, American traditions of westward expansion and bolting from the constraints of civilization.

And so Volkswagen head Martin Winterkorn was being even wiser than he sounded at the the CeBIT IT expo in Hannover, Germany last week when he warned against turning the car into yet another cookied browser. According to the Financial Times, he told the audience there, “I clearly say yes to Big Data, yes to greater security and convenience, but no to paternalism and Big Brother. At this point, the entire industry is called upon. We need a voluntary commitment by the automobile industry.” Winterkorn was even more explicit in warning, “The car must not become a data monster.”

German Chancellor Andrea Merkel was also attending CeBIT and called for international policies to govern car data tracking.

Big data in little vehicles will open up a host of new services carmakers can offer drivers. OnStar is only the beginning. Geo-aware ad targeting of the sort Quiznos is trying will be de rigeur, because it simply extends a basic model from the cells phones many already connect in their cars. But cars also produces a data pool from which consumers themselves can draw insights and efficiencies. Understanding your own shopping routes or gas consumption can render less expensive paths. Cross-indexing trips to certain stores with spending records can reveal where you spend and save money.

The ultimate big data service comes with the self-driving car, a sci-fi concept that has become a realistic goal to consumers, car companies and even Google much sooner than many of us expected. Car makers like VW were showing off their concept models at CeBIT and seemed to be anticipating a system of self-driving autos in the next decade. These are machines that surely will depend on connectivity and loops of data that is not only coursing between one consumer and the cloud, but shared among vehicles.

The data-driven car, ultimately, rubs against a century of cultural tradition. Cars symbolized personal freedom not only from space and place but from scrutiny and even social mores (think of how a car's backseat became a sexual arena, especially in the 1950s for teenagers aiming to escape parental supervision). Are Americans really ready for a data-shared, fully tracked and socialized experience?      

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