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MWC 2018: The Anonymous Car

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 02, 2018

European regulators are poised to once again shift European car makers to the back of the queue when it comes to realizing the value of connected cars. While the rest of the world is obsessively pursuing the creation of autonomous vehicles, the European Commission with the help of the GSMA is working toward the creation of the anonymous vehicle (with apologies to my Strategy Analytics colleague, Chris Taylor, who coined the expression in a cab with me in Barcelona this week).

There are two reasons for this: eCall and GDPR

The first step on the path to the anonymous car arrives next month as the European eCall - for emergency call - mandate takes effect requiring all new type-approved vehicles to include an embedded telecommunication device for automatically calling the nearest public service access point in the case of a crash and airbag deployment. There is no question that this is a good idea and may well save as many as 1,200 lives annually by speeding first responders to the scenes of crashes, but the road to ruin is paved with good intentions, as we know.

During the decade-long process of bringing the eCall mandate to the market car companies and carriers expressed concern at having so many embedded devices pinging the network - and thereby costing car companies pennies/month/car - while generating little or no real revenue. The early visions of the technology suggested that the same device being used for eCall could also deliver non-emergency services and connectivity satisfying wireless carrier concerns while offering a value-add proposition for car makers.

At the time, car makers were being dragged kicking and screaming into the business of connecting cars, so the idea of added-value services - with complicated and expensive (for consumers) subscriptions to manage - was more or less a non-starter. Further, car companies didn't want to pay the pennies/month/car necessary to enable the eCall devices to regularly ping the network - even when not in use.

So the GSMA, in its infinite wisdom, created the "dormant SIM." The dormant SIM allowed for the embedding of an eCall device that would essentially lie dormant inside a vehicle until the moment it was needed to alert authorities to a crash.

The folly of this solution is clear in retrospect. Today, car makers are racing to connect their cars and collect the data being broadcast from their vehicles. Pennies/car/month suddenly seems like a trivial concern and the dormant SIM an anachronism in the context of leveraging vehicle connections to facilitate automated driving and dramatically reduce highway fatalities.

But the folly lives on and many car makers will no doubt deploy dormant SIMs. The dormant SIM is a wireless device that, in effect, may never do anything while representing an appendix-like added cost to the consumer. Worse yet, since it is dormant neither the consumer nor the car maker or dealer will have any way to determine if it is capable of functioning properly should the unfortunate day arrive when it is needed.

The second step on the path to the anonymous car is the Global Data Protection Regulation which becomes enforceable starting on May 25th, 2018. This regulation, intended to protect consumers from misuse or abuse of their personal data has thrown a curve ball into the connected car business forcing car companies to reconsider their data collection strategies at the precise moment that data collection is becoming an essential task on the evolutionary path to creating autonomous vehicles.

The GDPR arrives just car makers are commencing the introduction of open APIs for data collection and sharing and business models are emerging for aggregating and productizing data in ways that are likely to ultimately subsidize the very vehicle connections expected to soon save lives - and time and money and emissions. The industry is just coming to grips with the unintended consequences of GDPR which include, for instance, speech recognition companies such as Nuance Communications accelerating their shift from cloud-based recognition systems to embedded.

Cars are, in essence, browsers on wheels. As such, the potential value of location information along with the value of cloud-based speech recognition are equivalent to the billions of dollars in revenue Alphabet extracts from online advertising annually.

GDPR throws a spanner in the works, complicating an already daunting process of data collection and extraction from vehicles - with the agreed participation of the consumer - in the interest of monetizing vehicle data connections. If cloud-based speech recognition, which has the capacity to enable vehicle-based search, is impaired,the process of justifying expensive vehicle connections will be slowed as well.

The irony is that car companies and carriers had finally made some progress on mitigating the costs of roaming and simplifying the process of reprovisioning cars between carriers, with the help of the GSMA's eUICC protocol. Just as car connections are becoming more manageable, data collection is becoming more problematic.

There is hope. BMW is attempting to show the way with its opt-in based vehicle data management platform BMW CarData. It remains to be seen how quickly consumers will embrace this approach - via which BMW acts as a trusted neutral data broker between service providers and BMW owners. BMW may yet fall afoul of GDPR, but the program has clearly been launched in response to GDPR, anticipating its requirements for approval of the consumer and transparency.

I, for one, feel that car makers should be REQUIRED, not discouraged, to collect vehicle data. My expectation is that my car maker will be obliged to tell me - in a proactive way - when my vehicle is misbehaving. It could very well save my life.

GDPR gives car makers an excuse, themselves, to opt out of data collection. Such a prospect will be deleterious to the industry and an abrogation of fiduciary responsibility. Car makers ARE obligated to collect vehicle data, no matter how difficult regulators make it.

The battle continues. Both the Europeean Commission and GSMA are poised to step in with regulations and standards, respectively, governing autonomous driving and cybersecurity. Let's hope they do better in these two areas or, at least, let's hope they do less.

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