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“Datenkrake” Part Deux: GM, Toyota & VW at the Crossroad

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 21, 2014

Volkswagen Chairman Prof. Dr. Martin Winterkorn used the made-up term “Datenkrake” when speaking at CeBIT last week to caution the converging computer and automotive industries against turning the car into a data monster (Datenkrake) capable of abusing consumer privacy rights. I wrote a blog on the subject earlier this week ( tinyurl.com/k59yz8v - Ich Bin ein Connectedcar - VW's #Winterkorn warns against the connected car as a #Datenkrake) suggesting that it was unwise for Winterkorn to use this characterization.

With the $1.2B Toyota settlement with the U.S. Justice Department now concluded and GM’s 1.6M-car recall to fix a faulty ignition switch underway, it is important to emphasize that an obsession with privacy cuts two ways – neither of which serves the interest of the consumer.  Car companies overly focused on privacy are failing to serve their own or their customers’ interests.  Car companies suggesting otherwise are deceiving themselves or their customers or both.

After the settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, Akio Toyoda, described the experience as a turning point for the company – a chance to re-focus on the customer. The Automotive News quoted Toyoda as saying: “Recalls are not about concealing problems we find. It’s about improving the product and coming up with countermeasures,” Toyoda said. “It’s a good thing from the long-term perspective of the automotive industry’s sustainable development.”

I am going to take Toyoda’s comments – and the new openness expressed by GM’s CEO Mary Barra in the wake of that company’s recent recall – a step further to suggest that what is called for is greater transparency. Car makers overly concerned with customer privacy may find themselves cut off from access to vehicle data that is vital to enhancing existing and future cars and saving lives. Conversely, consumers who opt for more closed, unconnected and privacy-enhanced vehicles may cut themselves off from access to vital information about their own cars – while granting the car maker plausible deniability. Of course, plausible deniability ("We had no idea there was a problem.") is a thin figleaf for a car maker when fatalities are involved.

Privacy concerns must be addressed by each car maker to the satisfaction of customers. Transparency ought to be every company’s guide.

A final note: What is not needed is some sort of industry coalition or consortium. There is nothing that looks less friendly to consumers than car companies all agreeing on a singular approach. This effort not only wastes time, but virtually guarantees the least innovative solution possible. Positive change can only come from competitive efforts to resolve this issue.

The best thing Winterkorn could now do would be to write a letter to the European Commission asking that organization to mind its own business when it comes to privacy policies governing the automotive industry. After fouling up the more than decade long effort to legislate eCall, there is no telling what kind of a mess the European Commission will make of privacy.

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