Ford-Google tie-up: is this the end of the road for driver privacy?

By Martin Courtney
13 May 2011 View Comments
Ford is testing Google Predictions API for hybrid driving behaviour

Drivers of Ford plug-in and hybrid cars might be concerned about sharing private information with Google if the search giant delivers on its promise of integrating the Google Prediction API engine with future versions of its in-vehicle software.

Google plans to derive real-time predictions from historical driving data and help Ford customers drive more efficiently. The data will include information on where a driver has travelled to and at what time of day.

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Mobile in-car access to theoretically unlimited amounts of information stored in Google's vast datacentres opens up whole new opportunities for information delivery to drivers, going way beyond the infotainment, mapping, tracking and security applications already available from Ford SYNC and others.

Few concrete details about Ford's proposed tie-in with Google's Prediction API have yet emerged. But Ford has indicated it is looking at an opt-in system that uploads individual's driving history to Google servers before using the Prediction API engine to make informed guesses about proposed journeys and the best route.

This will all be based on current electricity charges, weather conditions, traffic congestion and so on, using voice recognition technology to confirm driver intentions.

No details about how the data will be encrypted or transmitted have yet been revealed, which will undoubtedly lead to concerns about how historical data detailing individual journeys will be stored, accessed, deleted upon opt out and protected from use by various commercial entities keen to track people's activity for their own purposes.

Thilo Koslowski, vice president and distinguished analyst for automotive and vehicle ICT at research firm Gartner, described the partnership as a "curious effort" by Ford to look at ways in which it can combine Ford owners' driving information with Google's vast databases.

Koslowski agreed that trust is certainly one of the key issues.

While there are plenty of consumers that already use similar applications on internet or Android-based smartphones who will have no problem trusting Google in this respect, others are likely to be less enthusiastic due to concerns about privacy and access to personal details.

"To me Ford is making a big commitment to partner with Google on something as intimate as their drivers' route information," he said.

"Sharing this intimacy with Google or any other large technology provider will need to be balanced carefully to weigh access to technology expertise and resources against losing potential customer access or intimacy. The key challenge here is to build a Chinese wall between driving and driver data."

Nor is Google the only IT company whose wares are starting to interest car manufacturers. Microsoft announced last month that it is partnering Toyota to build a new telematics platform based on the Windows Azure cloud computing platform into the car maker's electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

It will use GPS, energy management and the multimedia mapping technologies included in Microsoft Bing to track battery life, stream music and link to mobile information services, and even allow remote administration of cars from mobile phones, according to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Chevrolet already has smartphone apps that allow owners to monitor hybrid car energy levels, while a host of other software companies have expertise in delivering vehicle location, tracking and driver monitoring applications to fleet managers.

By shifting information such as years of driver history to the cloud, Ford is opening up what might prove to be a Pandora's Box of data that Google and others can store, and drivers could use via in-vehicle systems, the scale of which was previously unimaginable.

These could include anything from applications that find the nearest refuelling point offering the best price, to nearby hotels, restaurants and cafés, for example, and even mobile ordering services.

It is significant that even Ford, which like other car companies has powerful compute resources of its own for computer aided design (CAD) and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) applications used to design, build and test new vehicles, is looking at the server, CPU and storage resources available to Google with envy.

"Google has very large cloud computing, server farms and computational capabilities that other companies don't have, plus scalability and pricing benefits," said Koslowski.

"In order to analyse historic traffic data and come up with accurate predictions regarding a driver's future destination you need to maintain and crunch a lot of data with sophisticated algorithms and Google's Prediction API does."

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