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Your car might know you better than you do

By Sara Hayden | 4 Apr 2014

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Activities that were once reserved for the home or office are making their way into the car — at jet speed.

In-car services like Pandora, for example, predict and play music you’ll love, and are standard features in some vehicles from BMW, Ford, Honda, Chevy, Lexus and others.

But it might not be too far off in the future when companies will also predict where and when you want to go in your car, activities you want to do, what food you want to eat and more — an effort by in-car technology providers to make sure drivers get the most out of their travel time.

“Things that take on more of a cognitive load — it gets pretty hairy,” said Mathias Crawford, a graduate fellow at Stanford University’s Department of Communication. Among other areas, Crawford has studied the relationship between virtual representations of the world and the real world, as well as the development of car-racing video games.

“Anything that takes your attention from driving is not necessarily a good thing, given that cars are extremely dangerous … (So) there are really good things about having those services. If you spend a lot of time in your car, it’s very useful,” he said.

Consider what’s happening at Telenav Inc., the Sunnyvale, Calif., location-based services company.

Telenav is partnering with automotive companies to bring its Scout for Cars navigation services to in-car platforms. The system is available in certain Ford and GM models, chalking up to millions of cars in the United States.

Plans are afoot to make the service available in a few years in international markets with a third company that remains under wraps, according to the company’s Jan. 30 earnings call. The company has targeted its automotive division as one of its key growth areas for the next fiscal year.

With Scout, drivers can find specific addresses or do category searches for things like coffee and gas stations near their location. When connected to the cloud, they can also get real-time updates on weather and estimated commute times. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, as far as Telenav is concerned.

“People are expecting to have the same kind of capabilities that they have on their phone in their car,” said Telenav spokesman Mark Burfeind. “Personalization is where it’s all headed.”

To that end, Telenav is also developing ways to make the driving experience even more personalized. Based on drivers’ “click” behavior, the company is collecting information about what drivers select and interact with on-screen and other location data. By referring to cached information, such as previously selected price points or style, Telenav hopes to use data analytics to find things like nearby restaurants and events that will appeal to people while they’re driving.

Others imagine future features of in-car technology that will enhance safety. Reilly Brennan, executive director of Stanford University’s Revs Program — which is dedicated to automobile research — suggested a hypothetical service that would automatically send a text message to a driver’s spouse with estimated time of arrival once his or her car leaves the parking lot at work as an example.

“We’re not even scratching the surface on the way data could be used,” Brennan said. “If that stuff helps me and makes my car safer, why wouldn’t I want that?”

Some skeptics say privacy is the answer to that question.

To make those kinds of personal recommendations, your car systems need to know a lot about you — and many do, according to a December report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“We’re entering into a whole other level when you’re basically walking around with a computer in your pocket … with all sorts of personal information on it. It’s an immediate concern for people to wonder what’s going on. And when you’re wandering into the GPS aspect of it, it’s keeping track of potentially where you are. That’s just a safety concern,” Telenav’s Burfeind said.

The 10 companies surveyed by the GAO, including Telenav, Google Maps and Garmin, take some, but not all, recommended measures to minimize privacy risk. Some try to make the collected data anonymous by removing identifiers like phone numbers and names or allowing users to opt out of data collection are potential precautions, the report said.

Privacy groups and policymakers question whether location-based data can be used for purposes beyond what’s advertised. For example, data might be collected to help you find a pizza joint; but can it also be used by data brokers who resell it? What about hackers infiltrating cars?

“The business environment will remain ambiguous,” Revs’ Brennan said. “The morality should be clear cut.”

Homepage image courtesy of Flickr, Thomas Nielsen/thomselomsen.

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