Consumer Watchdog Chases Google’s Autonomous Car

Tue, Sep 11, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Autonomous cars are a hot topic of conversation nowadays. Fans of the status quo see them as a waste of time. Driving enthusiasts see them as the harbinger of a boring, 55 mph future. And politicians see them as high-tech boogeymen to scare seniors into voting booths. (NB: that tactic didn’t work.)

    Now, another group voiced its criticism — specifically against Google’s autonomous car: the aptly but obviously named Consumer Watchdog group, based in Santa Monica, California.

    When last we heard from Consumer Watchdog, it had filed a lawsuit against Hyundai for publishing allegedly inaccurate fuel-economy stats about the Elantra. (So far as we know, that case is still pending, though public sentiment has often been on Hyundai’s side.)

    Today, the advocacy group is up in arms over Google and its autonomous car. Consumer Watchdog is urging California governor Jerry Brown to veto a bill passed by the state senate that would allow autonomous vehicles on California’s roadways.

    Consumer Watchdog doesn’t object to the notion of “driverless cars”, per se. Rather, it’s concerned that Google will use its autonomous car to gather information — presumably, information about where people go in their autonomous cars — and then use that information for marketing purposes.

    As the group’s Privacy Project director John Simpson wrote in a letter to Governor Brown, “A law regulating autonomous vehicles must provide that driverless cars gather only the data necessary to operate the vehicle and retain that data only as long as necessary for the vehicle’s operation…. It should provide that the data must not be used for any additional purpose such as marketing or advertising without the consumer’s explicit opt-in consent.”

    Our take

    We weren’t inclined to side with Consumer Watchdog in its case against Hyundai. While we certainly believe that automakers ought to be honest about their vehicles’ fuel efficiency, we also understand that real-world conditions — including topography, speed, traffic, and driving habits — make it difficult for some consumers to match advertised stats exactly.

    As far as autonomous cars are concerned, though, Consumer Watchdog may have a point. In the recent “Wi-Spy” case involving Street View, Google proved that it wasn’t the benevolent tech giant that many believed it to be. That’s not to say that Google can’t ever be trusted, only that Consumer Watchdog’s concerns are somewhat justified.

    To be sure, fully autonomous cars are years, if not decades away from becoming commonplace on U.S. roads. But even before they arrive, many autonomous-like features, including lane-assist and adaptive cruise control, will appear on American cars. Consumer Watchdog simply asks that the California legislature build consumer privacy into the pending autonomous-car law, rather than adding it via a future amendment.

    In this instance, our major beef with Consumer Watchdog is that its scope is too narrowly focused on Google. True, Google is the leader in the autonomous car game, with vehicles now legal on the streets of Nevada. But Google won’t be alone forever: soon other companies will join the fray. Shouldn’t they be held to the same privacy standard?

    And let’s not forget vehicle-to-vehicle technology, which is currently being tested by automakers and the federal government at sites across the country. Those systems rely on information from the web, other vehicles, and “smart infrastructure” to make roads safer. What’s to be done with all that data, hmm?

    Does Consumer Watchdog have a legitimate complaint? Or is the Google threat overhyped? Or should the group be focused on other privacy threats, like the FBI’s new, nationwide facial recognition system? Let us know via email or in the comments below.

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