Automotive > Powertrain, Body, Chassis & Safety Blog

Grote wird zu Winterkorn

by Roger Lanctot | Jun 28, 2019

Five years ago at the CeBIT Fair in Hannover, Germany, then Volkswagen Chairman of the Board Martin Winterkorn warned his listeners of the “Datenkrake” (Data Octopus) that was threatening to engulf the automotive industry. Winterkorn promised that Volkswagen would protect the privacy of its customers and secure their data against any threats.

Within a year and a half of this bold statement, Winterkorn was removed from his leadership position toppled by the diesel scandal still roiling the world’s largest car company. Ironically, it was Volkswagen’s surreptitious tinkering with vehicle data to defeat diesel emissions tests that brought him down.

Five years later, BMW’s Senior Vice President of Electronics Christoph Grote sounded a similar data protection alarm as Winterkorn while speaking at the Automobil Elektronik Kongress in Ludwigsburg this week. By now, though, it has become clear that Winterkorn’s mysterious Datenkrake is, in fact, Google. "BMW will never ever enter into a deal where you (suppliers or service providers in the audience) get our customer data and we get a discount," he vehemently advised the audience.

Grote is unlikely to face a fate similar to Winterkorn’s. Data privacy is a near obsession at BMW, though its data hygiene may not be as tidy as Grote would have us all believe.

Like a lot of car companies, if not most, BMW is collecting vehicle data.  The company uses the data to enhance its traffic and navigation routing and to capture scheduled and un-scheduled service opportunities, among other purposes.  Both of these applications are reasonably benign, if not taken for granted, by customers, but the process of opting in is less than obvious or explicit and the process of making customer data visible or available to the customer is opaque.

My own experience in the U.S., about which I have written in the past, includes BMW dealerships – my own – that have refused to share my own vehicle data with me. This is pretty basic stuff, but BMW still hasn’t sorted it out.

That being said, BMW has its own plans for collecting, anonymizing and aggregating vehicle data in partnership with Audi and Daimler. The program has at least two different manifestations: HERE’s Open Location Platform and BMW CarData, the latter solely for BMW vehicles.

With its co-ownership of HERE (with Daimler, Audi, Intel and other investors), BMW is promoting the concept of an anti-Google platform for collecting vehicle data. This platform is intended to be open to all auto makers, though the consortium has struggled to recruit additional car company participation. (It is worth noting that Intel has a stake in HERE and owns Mobileye which has its own REM - Road Experience Management – data gathering platform.)

BMW is on the right track, but Grote’s message has not evolved much from Winterkorn’s.  A more pointed and timely communication would be: “As an industry we cannot resolve the crisis of 1.3M annual highway fatalities individually. We must come together as an industry to build data sharing solutions and inter-vehicle communications with the goal of eliminating the upward spiral of car crashes and fatalities. We cannot do this alone and data is our friend.

Germany has a difficult history with data and privacy. Privacy need not be violated to save lives. We need to put the data boogie man back in his box. Data is not the enemy and privacy is not at risk.

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