By Gavin Green, The Voice of Experience

HE ISRAELI ACADEMIC Yuval Noah Harari, author of the beautifully written and scholarly Sapiens, has a new book. Rather than breezing us through the history of our species, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century warns about tomorrow. In particular, the threat of misusing personal data, algorithms and AI.

Our data that we casually hand over, says Harari, is as bad a bargain for us today as the exchange of land for beads was for African tribes in the past. Yet every time we use Facebook, Google or any of the other data gatherers, we ‘sell’ (for free email access, funny videos or easy messaging) information gold.

There are clear concerns here for car use, too. Car makers want to know you, and me, as well as Amazon or Facebook do.
‘Getting to know our customers’ has been a mission of car makers for years. Most are hopeless at it, partly because they outsource (to dealers) much of the customer interaction.

Currently, our phones constantly gather information on our activities and locations. Our cars, however, mostly remain disconnected islands, and the seclusion of the car remains one of its great delights. The car industry’s poor record on connectivity has one big upside: it preserves our privacy. But that’s changing.

New cars are now increasingly online: ‘iPhones on wheels’, to use the industry aspiration. A connected car is potentially a snooping car. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which ‘mirror’ our smartphones to our touchscreens, encourage more phone use while driving, allowing Silicon Valley to more easily gather car users’ data.

The car industry turned to Apple, Google and Amazon because their own interfaces have been rubbish. The only way to offer a good connected multimedia car experience was to partner with the tech giants. But car makers don’t want Silicon Valley to keep harvesting such data gold (and nor do they want Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to control more car functions). So most work on their own systems, such as Mercedes’ new MBUX.

Cars will read out messages, so they will know our friends and family. Connected sat-nav means they know our preferred route to work, where our friends live and when we visit them. They’ll access our calendar and they’ll tell us when we should set off, and the best route there. They’ll know when we shop and where.

They’ll know our favourite restaurants and pubs, our preferred radio stations and our fancied musicians, and where we stop to refuel or recharge. Biometric sensors will enable cars (and car makers) to know our moods and our state of mind. This is already happening, with facial sensors that determine whether we’re tired and need a coffee break.

Currently, car makers are lucky to know the name and address of their customers. In the Modern New World, they may know more about us than our spouses or children.

When self-driving cars rule, the potential for surveillance jumps to a whole new level. The car won’t just know where we’re going; it will take us there. We will likely be online – and monitored – the whole time while in our cars, as we work, message friends, watch TV and shop. Autonomous cars are not independent machines: they will be part of an interconnected network of vehicles, always communicating (and data capturing).

How will the car makers use this data? Benignly, and to ‘improve the customer experience’, they will say (as Facebook did before CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called before US Congress to explain the recent data harvesting scandal).
And, yes, data will enable them to design more customer- pleasing features and engineer more popular cars. They can invest in new models with more confidence. Just as customer data allows Netflix to commission new programmes almost riskfree, because they know exactly what we like.

But it isn’t just car makers and software providers who may gather our self-driving car’s data. So can the state. Big Brother will potentially know our every movement in our car and may even set the route we take. They’ll know who and what we visit, and when. This is worrying enough in a liberal European democracy. It is positively frightening in Russia, North Korea or China, the world’s biggest car market.


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