Privacy in the Age of the Connected Autonomous Vehicle (CAV)


At Highways UK a discussion in the Q&A that followed one of the presentations explored a data privacy and permissions problems that may arise in order to track a user's whereabouts  from A to B. I thought it fitting to open this up for wider consideration by way of a dedicated opinion piece.

It was pointed out that a fraction of the data that people are only too happy to share on Facebook would be all that was needed in the CAV scenario. However, although awareness is growing it seems to be the case that many users do not know, to this day, how Facebook et al use this information. Is ignorance bliss or were they simply not told? Or rather, how many people read long and meandering privacy agreements anyway?

It was concluded by the same audience member that people are only too willing to share information in public providing they won’t get caught either breaking the law or speeding etc. In the age of the CAV, speeding really should be a thing of the past but let us examine the data privacy situation further.

I joined Facebook in 2007 and left in 2008. It was not possible to leave sooner as it simply was not an option to do so (a few thousand of us signed a petition to enable it). That said, I likely did not read any privacy information at the time. But going forward, by presenting people with clear choices and control over their own privacy, which the GDPR will hopefully take care of next year, the general gist of the presentation debate discussed whether or not this type of consideration could become a thorn in the side of the digital evolution of transportation industry? Indeed what guarantees would network operators and CAV providers need to make, lest they are faced with a swathe of people that would simply choose to opt out? It was summarised that the risks/rewards need to be carefully considered and presented to the population when the time is right of course, which is some way off we must admit but even so.

Now that the thrust of the discussion has been outlined it is time to ask whether or not we are we missing the point here at all? After all, a network operator charged with roadway maintenance whilst policing congestion and the like will unlikely ever need access to a user’s private data. They will need access to each vehicle’s data certainly, but not the private data of the people inside. I think.

Will the CAV operator need access to this private data? Likely so, at least some quantity of it  in order to process payments of course, and to make sure that the CAV arrives preconfigured to the users customised colour scheme (inside and out) as well as their choice of specific style and spec of car (compact, estate, raleigh, Formula 1).

In the above light, the interface between the provider and the network operator will rely on  encryption and obfuscation no doubt, to separate the user’s data from the vehicle data. Which is a task that should be be easily achieved, even if the provider is also the operator. NSA notwithstanding, as well as concerns in terms of other strains of hacker (here).

For the AEC industry  it is not news that intelligence and connectivity will need to be built in to all areas, indeed the watertight reliance upon the infrastructure needed to support this digital evolution is paramount. Exacly how it will manifest is harder to predict, although future vehicles will broadcast a swathe of information about their own condition and that of the road surface itself, whilst advances in all other associated sectors are simultaneously made in order to also support this reality.

But before then it is interesting to ponder how many CAVs are really needed? If we genuinely want to reduce congestion, then many people will surely work from their Smart Office in the confines of their Smart Home - saving ‘real’ travel for leisure activities, occasional conference meetings and other physical endeavours that mandate attendance such as weddings and funerals. Each of which are colossal markets in their own right, with freight and shopping providing a continuous demand - particularly when the batteries have died in our Smart Allotments. Although not all jobs can be carried out at home of course, I'm merely thinking out loud.

Choice will certainly be a key differentiator among users however, and indeed for solo endeavours I could see myself taking a CAV to the nearest bullet train before stepping onto an automated segway to take me the rest of the way (although even then I’d still prefer to cycle). Perhaps the CAV that the provider sends me will be no larger than a powerful motorbike? In order to reduce congestion by even further arranging travelling pods side by side. Perhaps a comms system can alert passengers to the identity of the occupant of the nearby CAV in this case if they are prior acquaintances? Providing they have opted in of course, so as to converse so as to maintain a social aspect when to travelling? Fair enough, maybe not.

Business models will of course modernise too (no parking or speeding tickets etc) so all players involved; users, councils and providers will only come together and participate in order to make this a reality, if they all ‘win’ of course. But back to the subject of data however and let us already embrace ourselves for ‘free rides’ being provided by canny marketers that have convinced users to trade their personal information such that passing CAVs can tailor their ads specifically for them.  

It is no secret that the further we predict into the future the less accurate we will be, but providing the very best infrastructure to handle all outcomes remains forever vital. Indeed it is the least we can do in what is shaping up to be a truly wonderful and fascinating realm.