Will Cars Eventually Need a Do-Not-Track Option?

Earlier this month, a very public argument erupted between Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and New York Times reporter John Broder, who claimed in a Feb. 8 column that his electric-powered Model S sedan had ground to a halt on a lonely stretch of Connecticut highway, starved for power. Broder suggested the luxury vehicle, its battery affected by the winter weather, had been unable to make it between the Tesla power-charging stations sprinkled along the East Coast.

Musk promptly termed the column a “fake,” firing off a lengthy corporate blog posting in which he questioned Broder’s integrity. “After a negative experience several years ago with Top Gear, a popular automotive show, where they pretended that our car ran out of energy and had to be pushed back to the garage, we always carefully data log media drives,” he wrote. “While the vast majority of journalists are honest, some believe the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a salacious story.”

Following that shot across the bow, Musk posted what appeared to be screen-grabs from data of Broder’s test drive, complete with footnotes. That data suggested Broder had driven the vehicle at faster speeds than he claimed in the article (which would have drained the battery at a quicker rate), and that he had failed to fully charge the car at the available “supercharger” stations. Broder issued a lengthy refutation on the TimesWheels blog, conceding Musk’s point about the vehicle’s speed but insisting that he had conducted the drive with the best intentions and followed Tesla employees’ directions about charging the battery.

Musk seems to have let the whole thing drop—his follow-up posting on Tesla’s blog thanked the Times’ Public Editor for looking into the issue, and he didn’t mention the controversy during a Feb. 21 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show. But the whole brouhaha has raised a point that perhaps deserves further exploration: the rise of sensors in cars, and whether an automobile company—or any other entity, for that matter—has the right to take data from those sensors and use it for their own ends without the car owner’s permission.

Via Twitter, Musk has claimed that Tesla only turns on data logging with “explicit written permission from customers.” But it remains to be seen whether future generations of cars from other manufacturers will give customers the ability to “opt out” from sending sensor data. Think of it as “Do Not Track” for your sedan.

And that sensor-filled future is coming. Last August, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan announced a plan to make cars “talk,” installing a fleet of roughly 3,000 vehicles with DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communications) devices that would allow them to communicate wirelessly about speed and location. Google is famously working on “driver-free” cars capable of navigating a complicated route without crashing. And more and more vehicles—including newer ones from Ford—feature dashboard screens that link to everything from Web browsers to cloud-stored music libraries. While much of this technology is still in its infancy, its increasing prevalence could drive privacy concerns to the fore.


Image: Tesla Motors