Welcome to the Un-Car

What’s the biggest news out of CES last week? Car companies are cool again. No, they didn’t reveal a vehicle that’s capable of time travel when it hits 88 mph. They didn’t need to. They unveiled cars smart enough to predict where you want to go, drive you there, and learn from the other vehicles you pass along your route. Doc Brown and Marty McFly never had any of that. Biff, McFly’s nemesis, would appreciate the un-car for much more sinister reasons.

Over the past decade, numerous articles and research reports predicted that millennials wouldn’t flock to cars the way previous generations have done. The magic of automobile ownership appeared lost on them. This was a big deal. As millennials became the largest share of the American workforce, the evidence showed that owning a car and even having a driver’s license were no longer priorities they once were. When transportation alternatives were available, millennials were shunning cars. Automakers were nervous, but their response was truly impressive. They listened, they faced up to the new market realities, and they reinvented themselves.

Imagine the internal strategy meetings. How do we design cars for people who don’t like driving? How do we make money when people don’t want to own cars anymore? Finding answers required car manufacturers to rethink the automobile and abandon some of the most fundamental aspects of the traditional car. If customers don’t like driving, we need to invent cars that drive themselves. If customers don’t want to own cars, let’s sell them ride-sharing services instead. Welcome to the era of the un-car.

Creating self-driving, shareable cars is not an insignificant undertaking. It necessitates bold new business models and extraordinary technological innovation. On the day before CES, GM announced a $500 million investment in Lyft. At CES itself, we were presented with major advances in many areas, including connectivity, personalization, automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Top prize should go to the auto industry for even attempting such a remarkable transformation. The entire industry is remaking itself.

There are some common concerns about autonomous cars. What if they get into an accident? What if the computer makes an error? Will the infamous blue screen of death take on a literal meaning? These are the wrong things to worry about. Research shows that autonomous vehicles are expected toreduce the number of accidents on our roads, since computers are not susceptible to distraction, irritation, temptation, and exhaustion.

Encrypt My Ride

The real danger isn’t computer performance. The danger is data storage. These new models contain well over one hundred tiny computers. They have a staggering amount of processing power and they collect vast amounts of information, both from the vehicle systems and from the drivers and passengers. Think of your next car as a device that will know more about you than anything else you own. It will record where you went, when you went there, how fast you went, who you were with, what you listened to, what you searched, who you called, emailed and texted.

How will this vast collection of personal information be accessed, used, and shared? When you have a meeting on your calendar, your car will know to take you there. On the way to the appointment your car develops a mechanical problem, so your car automatically reroutes itself to an approved service center. Vehicle information is shared with the service center in advance of your arrival. So far, so good. But, whilst your car is being serviced, will the technicians have access to your meeting calendar? Will they see where you were going and who you were meeting with? Will they know who was in your car yesterday, for how long, and where you went together? This information is private and it doesn’t help them to repair your car, but it will be resident on the vehicle.

Compare your car with your smartphone. The best phones today protect your privacy by enabling encryption by default. So far, cars do nothing of the sort. Yet it is your car that you leave in the hands of anonymous strangers at the car wash, the mechanic, and the parking garage. Should the valet have access to emails cached on your phone? What about your personal contacts? Remember, if your car can access your Facebook account, so can the person parking it.

The rules governing vehicle data collection and usage have not been finalized. So far, most companies have overlooked this privacy threat almost entirely. The only truly effective strategy for ensuring privacy is for all data storage in the car to be encrypted. Naturally, the car manufacturer and/or ride-share service will require access to the system data. Only the owner or renter should have access to their personal information.

The good news is that the basic technology for protecting privacy on autonomous vehicles already exists today. Self-encrypting storage can preserve all of the benefits of these new vehicles whilst assuring the privacy of the driver. Think of your next car as a device that needs two keys. When you hand someone the physical key to your car, you are giving them physical access to the vehicle. That’s all you should be handing over. Your encryption key, the key that unlocks your personal information, should always stay with you.

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