Once all our cars can talk to each other, what will they reveal about us?

In the future, cars will be networked, personalized, and connected to the cloud. The laws protecting personal data collected from these cars? Still largely road kill.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the IFA 2012 consumer electronics show in Berlin as a guest of the IFA organizers. When not drinking Pilsner and eating bratwurst I managed to squeeze in a panel on the future of the car, featuring representatives from Ford, Microsoft, Inrix (the leading provider of aggregated traffic data to onboard GPS systems), and TuneIn Radio, makers of a music app for cars. I also interviewed Pim van der Jagt, a managing director for Ford Europe.Bottom line? In a few short years our cars will be connected and talking to each other. They will also be able to collect vast amounts of data about who we are, where we go, and what we do. Some of these things will undoubtedly make our vehicles much safer; some may erase what little roadside privacy we have left.This is more than just Jetsons-like fantasy. Last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and eight major car manufacturers launched a year-long test of car-to-car communications in Ann Arbor. Some 2800 cars, trucks, and city buses have been equipped with gear that will broadcast their size, speed, and location to each other as they roll down the road, using a special band of WiFi spectrum reserved for vehicle-to-vehicle communications. If another car gets too close or a pedestrian suddenly steps into the intersection, drivers receive an alert and can react accordingly.Some 70 percent of all accidents can be avoided if cars are networked, says van der Jagt. But that’s really just the beginning. Technology already exists that would allow your car’s computer to take control of the brakes and accelerator to avoid a collision, or to moderate the speed of each car to keep traffic flowing. And while we’re still a long ways away from being able to climb into the backseat and take a nap while our cars drive us to our destination (sorry Google Car fans), systems that can take the wheel during certain situations - like when stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic -- are likely to appear much sooner, says van der Jagt. The only question is whether drivers would be willing to hand the wheel over to their computer. Because the cars in the Ann Arbor test only need to know the location of other vehicles within 300 meters, there’s no need to connect to the Internet or record your car’s location, says van der Jagt. And since the system doesn’t collect any data from the car’s registration or VIN, there’s no way for Ford or anyone else to know who you are and where you’re going, he adds.

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