A decision on mandating connected vehicle technology is expected in 2013, when associated political issues such as privacy are likely to come to the fore. Pete Goldin investigates industry’s preparations for the challenge.
Once in a while new technology comes along with the power to revolutionise the way we live our lives.
Connected vehicle technology could be such a game changer. If mandated in the United States, it could quickly become the status quo for transportation in the US, and such a disruptive change could easily cause some public backlash.
Currently, the US Department of Transportation
(USDOT) and University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute
(UMTRI) are collaborating on a connected vehicle safety pilot that makes vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication – and the corresponding potential political issues – very real.
Today, around 2,500 vehicles equipped with connected vehicle technology are driving on the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan, as part of the pilot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA) has stated that in 2013 it will make a decision on how to proceed with connected vehicle technology. At that point it is likely that associated political issues will come to the forefront.
The issue that has received the most attention with regard to connected vehicle technology is privacy. The US public simply does not like the idea of being tracked. The concept that every vehicle may soon have a V2V/V2I transponder could be misperceived by many Americans as the potential to track their every move.
“You’re hitting a very touchy area when you start talking about privacy, but it is an issue that we have to overcome,” says Michigan DOT maintenance and operations engineer Steve Cook. President and CEO of ITS America
, Scott Belcher, clarifies: “Privacy is an issue that is important but manageable. If you think about the information you provide right now with your credit card, smartphone or GPS device, you are giving away information about your whereabouts already.”
John Maddox is director of collaborative program strategies for UMTRI. He says: “There is a perception that someone could be tracked by whoever has access to all of the data. This is an interesting paradox because the ability to track location is already there more easily through cell phone transmission than it ever would be through connected vehicle data.”
Even so, privacy has always been a very carefully thought-through aspect of the entire connected vehicle program in the United States, says Maddox. “The connected vehicle system, as envisioned by the USDOT, is set up to maximize privacy.” According to Maddox, the majority of data transmitted from the car is completely anonymous, and the architecture being tested by the US government has been designed to be appropriately private.
There is definitely data being transmitted by vehicles in the Ann Arbor pilot. How much of that data is personal? “Through the transponder in the vehicle, you cannot tell any identifying information about the vehicle, driver, or owner,” Maddox says. “The basic safety message transmitted 10 times per second is all about the vehicle’s speed and direction and path history over the last 500 milliseconds. It is not transmitting a VIN, the vehicle owner’s name or anything like that. The system does not need to know that information.” Maddox also notes that beyond the vehicle’s current trajectory, the system is not identifying where individual vehicles are coming from or going to.
The missing piece of the puzzle is an identifying technology that would be needed prior to deploying connected vehicle technology full scale, however. This technology, which has not been realized yet, would identify whether a specific node transmitting within the transportation environment is functioning properly and can be trusted. For example, a malfunctioning node transmitting that a vehicle is traveling at 999 mph would need to be identified so that other drivers would not base decision making on that misinformation.
Maddox says this technology designed to identify a unique node would be separate from the location of that node, so it would be extremely difficult to put those two separate pieces of information together to try to track someone through the connected vehicle data.
Ultimately, the privacy issue may come down to educating the public about the objectives of connected vehicle technology, what it actually does and most importantly, the huge potential benefits. “As we get closer to deployment, we will have to start thinking about education so that people don’t get the wrong perception, thinking they are going to be tracked,” says Maddox.
“Perhaps it is the responsibility of everyone involved in the connected vehicle industry to be careful how we talk about perceptions of privacy,” he advises. “The technology is designed to be anonymous, and we should always be presenting these hard facts of the situation – not ignoring the perception, but answering with the facts.”
“I think privacy is an issue that will become less important as the new generation of users become the majority,” adds Belcher, pointing out how use of social media and cell phones has been eroding the importance of privacy to children and young people. With this in mind, it is possible that other sensitive issues could eclipse privacy in the arena of public opinion or political debate.
“Privacy has received the most attention, but frankly I think there are other issues that are even more important,” Maddox explains. “One of them, related to privacy, is data ownership. We ought to try to set some sort of clear understanding about who owns the data coming off a given vehicle or group of vehicles.”
Is the data collected from connected vehicle technologies owned by the owner of the vehicle, the driver, the vehicle or device manufacturer, the entities that collect the data, or government agencies? “I don’t know how the data ownership question will be answered by we should be addressing it as we get closer to deployment,” Maddox warns.
Who is liable?
“I also think one of the key issues that has to be addressed, so that it does not delay the deployment of ITS technology, is liability,” he continues. “In the United States we have a liability system that tends to inhibit the introduction of innovation into our vehicle fleet. Connected vehicle technology can provide great benefits to society and we should not allow questions of liability to stall or delay implementation of the technology.”
The liability issue is very important. If a vehicle receives a message from another vehicle or infrastructure component that is malfunctioning, and the driver acts upon a message based on misinformation, who is liable if it results in an accident? Maddox says we need to look at whether our current liability system is inhibiting deployment of ITS and considering alternatives, such as shared liability.
Rise of the machines
Some see autonomous vehicles as an obvious next step in the evolution of connected vehicle technology, another political hot button that could drive backlash against a perceived attempt to take control of the vehicle away from the driver.
“The issue of people not wanting to give up control is an important one,” Belcher notes. “In the US, I don’t think people are amenable to giving over control of their vehicle to a computer, and I doubt, given our liability culture in this country, that is likely to happen anytime soon.”
Maddox doubts that the connected vehicle program will even move in this direction: “Certainly for the foreseeable future, the program will be about providing information to the driver and not taking control of the vehicle.”
In general, however, some pushback against connected vehicle technology may come down to the struggle of man versus machine. Some drivers may not trust technology, preferring to rely on their own eyes and skills.
“I would say everybody thinks they are a better than average driver, yet 93% of the fatal accidents on US roads are caused by driver error. So we are not perfect,” Maddox responds. “I think in some cases a machine can provide better information than the driver can. The driver cannot see three cars ahead but technology can, for example. In the end, I would say you are still responsible for making the right decision. You can choose to accept or ignore the information – that is your choice and ultimately your responsibility.”
As with any technology, Maddox predicts, there may be some hesitance at first, but when people start to see the real value of connected vehicle technology – such as the ability to avoid many collisions and save thousands of lives – they will begin to accept it.
“You can tell people about it. You can draw it in a diagram. But when people sit in the car and actually see the warnings in those dangerous driving situations, that is when they will see its value,” Maddox concludes. “Once people start to see the benefit, acceptance will grow quickly. We need to make people aware of the technology, continuing projects like the Ann Arbor safety pilot, to demonstrate that it works, because that is the best way to promote awareness – when we can say that we have tested it in 3,000 cars on the street and found that it works.”