• Is my car spying on me?

    Airbag control module
    Date:26 March 2012

    As cars become more computerised and more connected, how much data is my vehicle collecting about my driving, and who has access to that information?

    A modern car knows where you are, is constantly tracking your driving habits, and may even be able to call for help if you crash. It’s revolutionary, potentially lifesaving – and just a bit creepy.

    Most of a vehicle’s computers are scattered around the car and carry out mundane tasks – operating the engine and transmission, windows, seats and the radio – and these computers don’t have data-storage capability (see “Your car’s nervous system,” elswhere in this issue).

    However, the airbag-deployment controller is a bit different. It contains a component called the event data recorder (EDR), which monitors the vehicle’s network of sensors for signs of a crash and stores a few seconds of the data stream, dumping and refreshing the information constantly. The type of information collected in the EDR varies among manufacturers, but it generally includes throttle and brake-pedal position, steering angle, yaw rate (the vehicle’s rotational velocity), speed, and impact-sensor data. This information is saved permanently following an airbag deployment and can be accessed through the OBD-II port by a technician using specialised equipment.

    EDRs have been used since the 1990s and have recently been standardised in the US by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). EDRs will be required equipment on all cars registered in that country beginning in 2013, with the aim of making their data easier to obtain for crash investigations. Lawyers have used this data in court cases to demonstrate driver behaviour during an accident. In a lawsuit related to the Toyota Prius unintended-acceleration controversy of 2009 and 2010, a team of Toyota engineers and NHTSA offi cials accessed the EDR of the car in question, showing that the driver had been depressing the accelerator pedal instead of the brake, as he’d claimed.

    Most navigation systems are separate from a car’s computers and cannot track your location. Nav systems rely on the Global Positioning System, which is a one-way data stream to the car. Your car may know where it is, but nobody can track it via the GPS link, and no location data is stored in the EDR.

    But everything changes when you add a cellular connection. Cars equipped with telematics systems such as OnStar or Hyundai Blue Link have two-way links to service providers that relay GPS data. The operators of these services do, indeed, have the ability to see where you are, how fast you’re going, and what state your car is in mechanically. They can also track and remotely disable a stolen vehicle. The Nissan Leaf uses a similar two-way connection to regularly send data on use and location to Nissan, which the company uses for future electric vehicle development.

    But these services aren’t supposed to work without driver permission. The car can initiate a call in an emergency situation, such as when an airbag is deployed, but otherwise the driver must authorise an external connection to the vehicle.

    Companies have been caught snooping, though. OnStar found itself in the midst of a public uproar last September when it quietly changed contract terminology and started tracking customers with the intent of selling information about their driving habits. OnStar reversed the policy under pressure from consumers and the US government.

    Recently, insurance companies have begun testing tracking systems, which policyholders plug into their OBD-II port. The systems record data on driving habits, and in exchange customers can potentially get lower insurance premiums, but any data collected belongs to the insurer (including any crash data).

    What can you do about it? If you’re a new-car buyer, not much. But pay close attention to the language of the user agreement for any telematics service – if you don’t like what you read, opt out of the service. With EDRs, it’s enough simply to know your rights. The law is still playing catch-up to the technology.

    What your car knows

    This airbag control module (ACM) from a 2006 Ford houses a component called the event data recorder (EDR), which monitors driving conditions surrounding airbag deployment and logs information about the last few seconds before a crash. Accident investigators can then extract the following information:

    • Steering wheel position
    • Engine throttle
    • Change in velocity
    • Seatbelt use
    • Brake use
    • Airbag deployment
    • Warning lamp status

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