The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog is raising concerns about Google’s altruistic motives when it comes to autonomous vehicles. The group sees The Big G’s efforts less as a way to reduce crashes and save lives, and more as a ploy to mine and monetize even more personal data. And it wants to block a bill that would clear the way for Google’s self-driving cars to legally cruise California roads unless privacy protections are in place.
In a letter to Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court and the nonprofit group’s Privacy Project director John M. Simpson wrote: “Without appropriate regulations, Google’s vehicles will be able to gather unprecedented amounts of information about the use of those vehicles. How will it be used? Just as Google tracks us around the Information Superhighway, it will now be looking over our shoulders on every highway and byway.”
“Google gathers so much data in so many ways,” Simpson told Wired. “How will they use the data? The law itself is generic about autonomous vehicles. We drafted amendments that are also generic but solve the problem. We were prompted to call for the need for amendments became [the law] is so far down the road, and because of the nature of what Google does,” Simpson adds, saying that it’s not just about Google’s cars and lobbying efforts. “The amendments would cover data collection by any autonomous vehicle,” he says.
The California Senate unanimously passed SB 1298, and it’s now under consideration by the Assembly. Google has been instrumental in lobbying for the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) and sets guidelines for the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on California roads. Padilla has argued that giving Google’s autonomous vehicles the green light is crucial to keeping transportation and technology advances within the borders of the Golden State — perhaps as a reaction to Nevada being the first state to make autonomous cars legal.
Like Google, Padilla also cites safety and environmental reasons for promoting autonomous-car legislation. “Human error is the cause of almost every accident on the road today,” the California Senator said after the bill passed in his chamber. “If autonomous technology can reduce the number of accidents, then we also reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on California’s roads. For me this is a matter of safety.” He also pointed to the promise of autonomous vehicles to save fuel, reduce emissions and improve traffic flow.
But Consumer Watchdog isn’t buying it. And the group is drawing parallels to the nascent internet, urging lawmakers to be proactive about data-gathering self-driving cars and more circumspect about what it sees as profit-making motives for Google.
“Consumers enthusiastically adopted the new technology of the Internet,” Consumer Watchdog’s letter continues. “What we were not told was that our use of the Information Superhighway would be monitored and tracked in order to personalize corporate marketing and make Google a fortune. Now that Google is taking to the freeways, we must prevent inappropriate collection and storage of data about our personal movements and environment before we allow Google’s robots to take to the roads and report back to the Googleplex.”
Consumer Watchdog claims that it’s not against self-driving technology, acknowledging that self-driving cars are likely inevitable and have massive potential benefits. But the organization wants lawmakers to put privacy limits in place while laws are still being drafted. “We see that they are coming soon, and it will likely be a good thing if implemented appropriately,” says Simpson. “But not if it’s implemented without thinking about the privacy implications. We’re trying to get in there early enough to consider those. If you look at the Internet itself,” he added, “we’re playing catch-up: No one really realized you’d be tracked all over the Web.”
The letter concludes, “SB 1298 must be amended to provide that individual data profiles about the use of a driverless vehicle cannot be compiled without the user’s permission and that permission should not be required for use or purchase of such a vehicle.”
Google has been very active in pursuing legislation on state levels, and more recently on a national level, even bringing a self-diving Toyota Prius to Washington, D.C. and taking political heavyweights such as U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) for a spin. The search giant backed the bill that made self-driving cars legal in Nevada. And according to Matthew Newton, editor of DriverlessCarHQ.com, Google gave rides to policymakers in California, Nevada and Florida. U.S. News & World Report has also noted that Google spent a reported $5 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2012 alone — more in the same time period than Apple, Facebook and Microsoft combined.