Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tesla Motors – Supercharged Supersnooping

The on-going feud the last week or two between New York Times columnist John Broder and Tesla Motors Elon Musk has highlighted at least one issue. Modern cars are going to be hell for privacy activists. In fact, the car you sit in could end up invalidating United States v Jones – the case requiring long-term GPS tracking have a warrant.

To recap the case, Broder borrowed a car from Tesla, to do a review of the newly installed Supercharger stations in New England. His review was less than flattering, but the merits (or veracity) of that are not at issue here. What is of concern is how Elon Musk, head of Tesla Motors, responded. He released the car’s data. Yes, while Broder was driving it around, the car was recording all his actions.

All graphs ©Tesla Motors

The issues are many, but simply it’s one of privacy. Why is my car recording this information? Of what benefit is it to me that it does this? And more importantly, “How can this data be misused”.

Vehicle datalogging isn’t that unusual in a lot of the world. Commercial drivers often log their actions. In the US, HGV (meaning 18-wheeler) drivers have to keep a log of their driving hours and distances. Some companies are moving from paper logs, to electronic logs tied in to the satellite dispatch and tracking system. In Europe, drivers are required to have a tachograph fitted, to record their speed and distance, and hours of operation.

These are commercial vehicles, where the route and vehicle are pre-selected by the company, and are operated as part of an industry for pay. Thus the provisions there are acceptable for the purpose. This is not the same as with the Tesla incident.

For a start, the Tesla is a passenger car. It is not a commercial vehicle that has been hired to move a load from one location to another. Secondly, the type and quantity of information is substantially greater than that of a tachograph. In his attempts to derail the review, he not only provided graphs of speed and distance, but also more questionable data, in an attempt to show errors in the reporter’s statements; data such as the cabin heater setting.

Are you worried yet?

The records are actually surprisingly detailed. In one instance, he reveals the following graph, where the datapoints are between 1-3 seconds apart.

Are you worried now?

The one other aspect that could have made or broken the case was the GPS. Apparently, it wasn’t turned on. Now, call me old fashioned, but I’m a little dubious about that. The cabin temperature logger was on, but the GPS was turned off? So he didn’t use the GPS navigation system once? I would have had it on myself, if only to see how well it reacted to the cold, and give me some more information (but maybe I’ve been spoilt by the Google navigation of the android handset, with the traffic info included)

The question is, how much more monitoring will there be. Some cars already have black boxes in them, which can provide info at crashes – just ask Massachusetts Lt. Gov Tim Murray, who was ticketed after his car black box said he was going 108mph before a crash in a government vehicle.

Now the federal government wants such data recorders in every car. While I can appreciate some of the sentiments, there needs to be a limit for privacy.

There is an easy way to handle it that does what the NHTSA wants, but doesn’t compromise privacy.

A rolling 30second log.

Even at 80mph, that is less than a mile of data, and would help with accident investigations. Yet it wouldn’t tell you anything except the actions leading up to the accident. Heck, I’ll even go further. A rolling 30second recording, BUT when an accident trigger (say the airbags or pre-tensioners) is set off, it continues recording for another 90 seconds. This will show who did what after the incident. Did he try and drive off? Were the seatbelts fastened before or after?

It’ll handle the information the NHTSA wants, and keep drivers honest in their accident reports, while respecting their privacy, and not allowing yet another back door for privacy abuse and tracking.

And no matter what Elon Musk was trying to prove, all he's proved to me was that he doesn't care about privacy, and that I won't EVER buy a car from his company. Not when all a government agency has to do is plug into my car, or call up the car company, and get all the info they want or need from it.

That's not smart, and I hope it's not the future.

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