‘Internet of Cars’ Opens New Market for Developers

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Privacy advocates are more than a little concerned about the so-called “Internet of Cars.”

An offshoot of the nascent-but-expanding “Internet of Things,” the “Internet of Cars” refers to the growing number of vehicles loaded with sensors and devices capable of accessing the Internet. Carmakers, cell-network providers, mobile-telematics developers, and a long list of technology companies (including Google, Apple and Microsoft) are stuffing as much connected hardware as possible into anything with four wheels and a motor.

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By 2016, most buyers in the United States and Europe will judge cars as much by their capacity for a Web connection as for gas mileage or any other traditional decision point, according to Thilo Koslowski, who heads up Gartner’s analysis of the auto industry.

In theory, Internet-enabled cars could enable a broad range of improvements to existing services: If thousands of drivers in a particular area all turn on their windshield wipers at once, for instance, it could help a real-time weather service better predict rain. Data from shock absorbers could help identify rough patches of road.

While those are future innovations, it’s clear that auto manufacturers and tech companies are already siphoning up enormous amounts of data—raising inevitable questions about what they’re doing with all that information, and if they’re selling it to the highest bidder. Most of the big automakers put GPS systems in some car models, and most of them collect continuous streams of data from those systems that show exactly where that car has been and when, along with the name of the owner subscribing to the GPS service (if necessary) or the unique vehicle identification number of the car, according to a December report from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) that looked into the data-saving practices of Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

Most of the GPS data that carmakers collect is meant (at least in theory) to assist quick-response customer service programs such as GM’s OnStar, which is best known for determining when a car has been in a wreck and phoning for help. Most GPS makers—Garmin, TomTom, Nuvi, Google Maps and Telenav—also track, store and use location data for their own purposes, according to the GAO report.

At the moment, the manufacturers are positioning the technology as an unmitigated good. “Customers want to integrate their personalized digital lives into their daily drive to ensure they are as connected and streamlined on the move as they are the rest of the day,” Ford CTO and VP of Research and Innovation Paul Mascarenas told the U.K.’s Western Morning News March 31.

Meanwhile, consumers are showing few signs of worry about the potential of Web-connected vehicles to collect and give away more about their daily habits, likes, dislikes and activities. Few buyers, especially those who don’t subscribe to OnStar or similar systems, are aware that their automaker may track their movements and store the data for purposes of their own. And even if they did, most have no way to opt out of tracking services, and have little or no legal protection to keep those companies from misusing that data, according to a statement from Minnesota Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), quoted in a UPI story Jan. 7.

For those who work with consumer data, it’s clear that cars could soon add a new wrinkle to traditional behavior analysis. And for those who build apps, the rise of in-car Internet connectivity and dashboard screens could lead to a whole new market. Although the “Internet of Cars” won’t reach full maturity for quite some time, it might be worth starting your research now.

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