Leasing of Renault Zoe's Battery Shows How EV Data Can Be Misused

By · November 15, 2013

Renault Zoe

The Renault Zoe, a small electric car available in Europe, is sold under different terms than most other EVs. The battery pack is leased separately from the vehicle. Renault took this approach to reduce the Zoe's upfront purchase price, carrying any premium through monthly rental fees for the battery. So the driver owns the car, but Renault owns the pack—and as a result, there are a few details of the arrangement that have a creepy “Big Brother” feel about it.

According to a recent report by Der Spiegel, the Zoe lease says that, in case of default on the lease, or at the end of the lease term, Renault can remotely disable recharging of the battery pack. That would prevent Zoe owners from using their car. From Renault's perspective, remotely disabling the car in such a case is more convenient than sending out the Repo Man, while achieving the same effect of gaining their customers attention and encouraging them to resume lease payments.

Even for customers in good financial standing with Renault, the company is able to track the location and movement of the electric car. The Zoe is not the only car with this issue. Today’s cars, regardless of powertrain, are now computers on wheels. Those computers are connected to the Internet. EVs are particularly connected via remote applications so they can detect things like battery state-of-charge and distance from the nearest charging station.

What does an automaker or its vendors using remote control capabilities for lease enforcement have to do with Big Brother? Look no further than the recent news about wholesale NSA wiretapping of essentially all our communications. How far will the NSA and other government agencies go in collecting data? Is it too far a leap for government agencies like the NSA to gather data from cars?

Car Data Waiting To Be Tapped

This possibilities are well known. Last year, the infamous imbroglio between Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, and John Broder, energy writer for The New York Times, revealed the extent to which data from an EV can be gathered. At one point, Musk released detailed logs of Broder’s ill-fated trip—with which Musk proved Broder had stretched the reality of his experience in the Model S.

Moreover, the data showed just what is being collected: GPS coordinates, speed, acceleration, direction of travel, use of the climate control system, and even the specific radio stations jamming on the car’s stereo. Essentially, any of the car’s features—reachable through the on-board computer network (or CAN-BUS) generates data that can be captured and transmitted. Musk explained that Tesla's computers usually don't log that much information from owners' cars, but he showed what was possible.

The use of smart phone apps for cars exacerbates these potential problems. While it's nice on a cold morning to warm up the car via an app while you're inside having breakfast, it raises additional privacy questions: How many features can (or should) be remote controlled? These features could be accessed directly by the manufacturer—say, for customer support—or by any other entity to whom the manufacturer grants API access.

That could include local governments, who for example, might remotely shut down cars being pursued by the police. During weather emergencies, or in the case of a riot, cars could be stopped en masse.

Already Happening With Web Companies

The difficulties Internet giants like Google and Yahoo have faced with governments demand for data shows that carmakers could also be coerced into sharing personal data. The Internet giants have begun publishing what they can about government data requests, but they're prohibited from revealing the full extent of the data being shared. It's not just the U.S. government either. Google reported that more than 32 countries have requested information about user accounts. That number is going up.

Governments around the world are demonstrating a keen interest in detailed data about communications between private citizens. We don't know whether governments are currently getting data from our cars, but the wealth of information about where and how we are driving might prove irresistible.

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