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Data from your connected car could be sold to the highest bidder

Carmakers are collecting increasing amounts of data from connected vehicles. But legislation around how this data can be used is lacking.

By Matthew Gooding

As more connected vehicles hit the road, the volume of data being generated by and about their drivers grows exponentially. The opportunity for automakers and tech companies to deliver and monetise new services is potentially massive. But for motorists and fleet operators, the question of who owns that data – and what rights they have to control its use – remains unclear.

Connected car data

Even the least-connected cars can generate up to 25GB of data in an hour. (Image by mashurov / iStock)

The value of data generated by vehicles has been recognised for some time, not least by Big Tech companies which are increasingly integrating themselves into automotive supply chains. Apple, which has seen plans to produce its own car stall, is reportedly ready to expand its widely used CarPlay service, which currently allows iPhone users to connect their phone to their car’s “infotainment” systems so that it covers more of the vehicle’s control functions. iPhone users who drive BMWs can already use their phone in place of the car’s electronic key, and as more similar products emerge from Apple and its rivals, the focus on how information that emerges from these systems is used is also likely to increase.

What do car companies do with connected vehicle data?

Connected vehicles interact with the environment around them through an array of sensors and systems logging details of journeys and car performance. Some 30 million were sold last year according to data from ABI Research, making up 41% of the total new car market. This number could grow to 115 million annual sales by 2025, the company says. The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is one key driver behind this increased connectivity.

“You’ve got a convergence of digital connectivity, electrification, and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), which many people think will eventually morph into fully autonomous vehicles,” says Dave Leggett, editor of trade title Just Auto. “These things are often synergistic, for example in the case of electric vehicles, battery life and charging requirements – fleet managers need data so they can know where these vehicles are and how far they are from a charging station.”

The amount of data collected varies between manufacturers, and also depends on the level of automation in the vehicle. Industry body the SAE has developed six levels of automation for classifying connected vehicles, and even those at the lower end of the spectrum can generate up to 25GB of data an hour, according to data storage business Tuxera.

The industry has done an abysmal job at educating consumers about the data that is being collected.
Roger C Lanctot Strategy Analytics

Leggett says automakers are at “a very early stage” in their relationship with data. This is reflected in their thus far clumsy approach to the issue, says Roger C Lanctot, director of automotive connected mobility at Strategy Analytics. “The industry has done an abysmal job at educating consumers about the data that is being collected and enabling customer control,” he says. “On your phone, you can say ‘I want to share this data but not that data’, or you can opt-out of sharing altogether. There is nothing like that when it comes to vehicles that I’ve seen.”

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This flies in the face of driver opinion. Just 29% of the 3,000 European drivers surveyed by IT consultancy Capgemini said they would be willing to share their vehicle data, with privacy concerns being the most common reason for this reluctance.

Drivers often have little choice in the matter, however, as service-level agreements for connected vehicles often allow carmakers to use driver data however they see fit, including by selling it to third parties.

Car data is already being used by advertisers to deliver contextually targeted marketing messages. "It might not just be about the time of day — it might be about a demographic or it might be about a more personalised connection with a consumer that we know because of digital behaviours," said Melanie Elliott, of advertising agency Mindshare Global, at a recent event.

Some data collection is essential for safe operation of the vehicles, says Leggett. “The automakers are gathering a lot of data, and some of it is in the interests of safety, identifying hazards or potential problems with the vehicle,” he says. But “it is still something of a Wild West” when it comes to personally identifiable information (PII), he adds, which is ill-defined in the context of connected vehicles and can be used for commercial reasons.

Industry executives often talk about consumers owning their own data, but “this talk is cheap,” Lanctot argues. “Protocols and procedures surrounding the use of customer data have not been adequately defined or implemented. It’s fine to say [that drivers own their own data] but if they have no means of getting access to it or using it then it’s worthless.”

His views are backed up by a 2018 study from the Harvard Law School, examining who owns the data generated by “smart vehicles”. The cross-jurisdiction study concludes that data is “most likely [owned by] the company that made your smart car”. “Although the consumer owns the smart car itself", it says. the right to "access, limit access to, use, and destroy data" is usually retained by the car manufacturer. “Consumers might be able to get a regulatory exemption to allow them to bypass proprietary smart car software and access the data,” the report adds. “But such an exemption would not give consumers the right to economically exploit the data.”

Will legislation tackle the use of connected car data?

Data generated by drivers in Europe is covered by GDPR, and the EU released specific guidelines on personal data in the context of connected vehicles last year. However, concerns that manufacturers were not sticking to GDPR led to motoring organisation the FIA launching its My Car, My Data initiative to highlight the subject to its members and the wider auto ecosystem. "Ninety per cent of Europeans believe that they own their vehicle’s data and it should be standard that drivers get the choice of whether or not to share this data," the campaign site says.

In the US and China, the world’s largest auto market, there is no such all-encompassing legislation covering vehicle data, though signs in the US suggest things may be changing. Last November, voters in Massachusetts opted to extend the state’s right-to-repair laws so that vehicle data can be accessed by the driver and third party mechanics through a standard open portal to assist with repairs. Though this doesn’t solve the data ownership issue, it at least givers vehicle owners a clear view of the data held about their car.

Outside of Massachusetts, carmakers are developing portals that display car data, often in partnership with tech companies, Lanctot says, but these often give only a partial picture. He believes greater regulation is the only way to protect drivers. “If you're an automaker, you're going to prioritise those things which create revenue,” he says. “This is not a revenue-creating activity, it is sort of obligatory, which is why it may require regulatory intervention.”

Leggett expects regulators to intervene, though so far signs of further action in this area have been limited. “The messages coming from the regulators are that they are looking at this, as we need the structures in place to protect the rights and civil liberties of individual drivers,” he says. He believes anonymisation of some data could present a useful solution, allowing companies to retain the information they need about car performance without impacting privacy. The Harvard study recommends all data that leaves the vehicle should be anonymised.

Could drivers monetise their own connected car data?

In addition to stronger data protection rules, Lanctot believes drivers should be compensated for allowing the automakers to use their information. "I'd like to be compensated for my data," he says. "Rather than just having an opt-in, I'd like some kind of incentive or discount for sharing my data, because it's extremely valuable, and more valuable to the car companies than it is to the consumer because it's incredibly powerful and useful for customer retention."

"Your car is like a search engine once it's connected – everything you do is like a query on Google, and that's really useful for a whole host of people. The idea that this information could be sold to advertisers [by the automakers] is a nightmare scenario for many drivers."

Leggett argues changing attitudes of drivers could save the industry – and regulators – from taking drastic action. "At the moment a lot of people are very sensitive about the location data from their vehicle," he says. "But I think it's fair to say that in many countries drivers are becoming more relaxed about this kind of thing. We all walk around with location services turned on because it's useful for us and without it, a lot of apps don't work properly. So I think mobility and technology are a manifestation of the bigger questions we're asking ourselves as a society about the kind of information we are willing to divulge."

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