Big Brother Is in the Dashboard

By · January 22, 2013

A funny thing happened on the way to the realization of George Orwell's future where individuals' every move is monitored – it's not the government that is doing the tracking, it's the devices that we bring into our pockets, homes, and vehicles.

The overriding theme for motorists at this year's Consumer Electronics Show was the Connected Vehicle. Automakers including Audi, GM, Ford, Toyota, Volvo, and others unveiled new initiatives enabling vehicles to talk to mobile handsets and to share data in the cloud (Orwell would never have used such a non-threatening euphemism). The focus of the Connected Vehicle initiatives today is entertainment, concentrating on music, news and information, and even dating applications from niche startup companies such as TuneIn, Slacker, Kaliki, BeCouply and dozens of others.

Ford and GM both took a bold leap into 20th-century software development practices by opening up their in-vehicle software platforms, which will enable third-party companies to create applications that can be downloaded into vehicles without having to pay licensing fees to the car companies. This embracing of the application development community is a significant shift for automakers that previously had protected their internal workings to keep out invasive hordes of unknown software.

In addition to syncing your dashboard to all of your social media and entertainment apps, automakers are also focusing on navigation and safety with their connected vehicle strategy. For example, real-time traffic information will guide you to your destination, and Ford is analyzing where you go most frequently to recommend ways for EV drivers to economize on their energy usage. Safety applications now becoming common include detecting swerving and tailgating, as part of the longer-term effort to develop autonomous vehicles.

Now that the software doors have been thrown open and GPS systems are becoming standard, software developers will create vehicle applications that bring new levels of personalization to information delivery, including location-based marketing (e.g., "The Urban Outfitters up ahead is having a 20% off sale"). Ford envisions its vehicles connecting with medical devices to know when individuals are having a health event, such as becoming hypoglycemic or high stress levels.

The connected car will provide a more personalized experience while also helping to reduce traffic and therefore fuel consumption, which are both strong positives. However, having your car and mobile phone know everything about you presents the potential for hackers or car thieves – or insurance companies – to use this information against you. This may be an even more insidious threat to personal freedom than was envisioned in 1984, as the tracking isn't mandated by a company or government – it's invited by you.

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