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When Data Comes in Cylinders, Privacy Should Have a Safety Belt

David Hasselhoff KittIt is often said that life imitates art. But with the latest automotive technology now appearing in vehicles, it may be safe to say that life is imitating kitsch, or at least, KITT.

KITT was the name of the amped-up Firebird Trans-Am featured in the 1980s David Hasselhoff vehicle “Knight Rider.” The car – the Knight Industries Two Thousand, or KITT – was controlled by a computer with artificial intelligence. Wherever Hasselhoff’s character drove, KITT tracked his actions, kept him safe and provided occasional computer games.

Similarly, many of today’s new-model vehicles come with some form of intelligence technology, such as an onboard computer or tollbooth transponder, that gathers data about our driving activities. Soon, such tracking may be required: The U.S. government is preparing to mandate the installation of black-box accident recorders in vehicles to track the details before a crash. According to a story in USAToday, the devices are already built into 96 percent of new cars.

All of this technology may be reminiscent of KITT, but it is nothing to take lightly.

Privacy advocates are, understandably, on edge. They worry collected personal data will end up in the hands of unintended parties, including the government. Courts are already hashing out the admissibility of such information in lawsuits. And there is the ongoing question of whether the data will be sold to or collected by marketers.

These are good points, but I am not sure they will stop the progress of data collection in vehicles, particularly since these technologies are being implemented as a safety feature. To me, the primary task for automakers and the data collectors will be building responsible safeguards for that data, and communicating what information is being used and why.

The kind of data collected from under the hood (and behind the wheel) could help automotive manufacturers better advise their customers on fuel economy, vehicle wear and tear and perhaps on maintenance adjustments. And it could possibly help the community. What if the information indicates traffic congestion, so drivers could plan their travel more effectively? Or if it provided an analysis of traffic flow so municipalities could change the sequencing of stoplights to improve traffic efficiency?

The key to making any of these benefits resonate is complete transparency on the part of automakers. With every new feature, the manufacturer should provide the consumer with a direct communication explaining the “why” of the technology – that it improves safety, lengthens the life of the battery or alerts the driver to potential hazards. And it should provide a phone number or dedicated website where questions can be answered.

Once consumers see the value exchange in sharing their personal data, the creepy factor will diminish and they will open up to the idea of using their information more broadly.

KITT may have been an act of fiction, but the technology to operate a “living” vehicle is with us today. Consumers should be able to live with this idea, if automakers provide relevant outreach and recognition of the consumers’ role in the process. There’s nothing at all kitschy about that.

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