Is Ford collecting GPS coordinates (and perhaps other data) on its customers?
Comments made by a company executive at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas certainly left that impression. “We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone,” Jim Farley, Ford’s global vice president of marketing and sales, reportedly told show attendees.
But he quickly reversed course, claiming in a later statement to Business Insider that he “absolutely left the wrong impression about how Ford operates. We do not track our customers in their cars without their approval or their consent.” His original quote, he added, was purely “hypothetical.”
This isn’t the first time some controversy has erupted over automakers tracking (or potentially tracking) drivers via onboard sensors. In February 2013, for example, a high-profile battle erupted between Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and New York Times reporter John Broder, who claimed in a column that his electric-powered Model S sedan had ground to a halt on a lonely stretch of Connecticut highway, starved for power. Musk termed the column a “fake” and 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 in a blog posting. “While the vast majority of journalists are honest, some believe the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a salacious story.”
Tesla aside, the era of the sensor-studded automobile is clearly on its way. In August 2012, 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 has devoted considerable resources to its “moonshot” project of driver-free cars capable of navigating a complicated route without crashing. More and more vehicles—including newer ones from Ford—feature dashboard screens that link to everything from Web browsers to cloud-stored music libraries.
Even if Ford isn’t tracking its customers via onboard sensors—there certainly might be a clause buried in some piece of paperwork that technically allows them to do so—we could be approaching an era where a Do Not Track option for automobiles becomes a serious point of debate.