Volkswagen Chairman: Cars Must Not Become ‘Data Monsters’

A cool concept car from Volkswagen. Not shown: its new and amazing ways of collecting your driving data.
A cool concept car from Volkswagen. Not shown: its new and amazing ways of collecting your driving data.

While automakers from Tokyo to Detroit rush to sprinkle their respective vehicles with all sorts of sensors and screens, the chairman of Volkswagen Group has warned about the limits of data analytics for automobiles.

“The car must not become a data monster,” Martin Winterkorn told an audience at the CeBit trade show in Germany, according to Re/code. “I clearly say yes to Big Data, yes to greater security and convenience, but no to paternalism and Big Brother.”

At the same time, Winterkorn endorsed a closer relationship between tech companies such as IBM and the auto industry, and highlighted Volkswagen’s experiments with autonomous driving—both of which will necessarily infuse automakers (and his company in particular) with more data-driven processes. The question is which policies from which entities will ultimately dictate how that data is used.

Data-analytics providers and IT vendors have increasingly turned their sights on the auto industry as a new source of business, driven—so to speak—by the increasing prevalence of electronics in vehicles. That prevalence, in turn, is thanks to a years-long effort to miniaturize processors and other components. Now a manufacturer such as Tesla can send over-the-air software updates that improve a vehicle’s performance; a dashboard screen can feed the driver a galaxy of information. In turn, manufacturers can use the aggregate data from thousands of vehicles to improve future models and create new services.

Winterkorn isn’t the first individual to voice concerns about how automakers (and their partners) store and analyze all that vehicle data. At this January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, a Ford executive drew considerable controversy by suggesting that Ford collects detailed information on how customers use its vehicles. “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, told show attendees.

Farley later attempted to clarify his statement to Business Insider, but that didn’t stop a fierce debate over vehicle monitoring—and certainly hasn’t stopped automakers and tech companies from collaborating over more ways to integrate data-centric features to vehicles. In February, Amazon announced that Ford SYNC Applink-equipped vehicles would include the Amazon Cloud Player, allowing drivers to access their music libraries via voice command or dashboard controls; supported vehicles include the Mustang, Fusion, F-150 and Ford Fiesta.

So who will ultimately regulate how data from cars ends up used? For the moment, the automakers (as well as the companies providing onboard and sensor-analytics services) have any leeway afforded them under their respective Terms of Service. But it’ll only take one massive data-leak to spark a very public conversation over who owns, controls, and uses data from the road.


Image: Volkswagen