Proceed with Caution: Vehicle to Vehicle Communication Technology

Will the brave new world of automobiles include talking vehicles?  According to a plan by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), the answer is yes.  NHTSA has provided advanced notice that it intends to propose a rule  that all passenger cars and light trucks must have vehicle to vehicle (“V2V”) communication capability by 2019.  Many automakers are already incorporating some V2V technology in their current models, but the proposed rule, which is slated to be delivered in 2016, would make V2V technology a required standard.  Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, however, warns that automakers have not adequately addressed the data security and privacy issues inherent in the V2V technology, including the risk of hacking and the lack of limitations on automakers’ use of the driver and vehicle information collected through the V2V technology.

The purpose of the V2V communication system is to allow vehicles to transmit information such as speed and bearing to nearby vehicles and to generate safety warnings for drivers.  While the potential safety benefits of “connected cars” are substantial, V2V communication utilizes wireless technologies, which opens the door to hackers.  This in turn can cause safety problems.  Studies have shown that hackers can gain access to the controls of some popular vehicles, causing them to suddenly accelerate, turn, kill the brakes, activate the horn, control the headlights, and modify the speedometer and gas gauge readings.  Senator Markey’s report concluded that most automobile manufacturers are unaware of or unable to report on past hacking incidents and the security measures to prevent remote access to vehicle electronics.

Driver privacy is also a concern.  Features in cars like navigation are quietly recording and transmitting personal data and driving history.  The Markey report reveals that automobile manufacturers collect large amounts of data on driving history and vehicle performance and wirelessly transmit this data to data-centers (including to third parties) without effective means to secure the information.  Moreover, drivers are often not explicitly made aware of this data collection and, when they are, they generally cannot opt out without disabling valuable features such as vehicle navigation.

The NHTSA is aware of the data security and privacy issues inherent in V2V communication technologies and is in the process of establishing rules to regulate auto manufacturers and protect the privacy of drivers.  The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), the federal agency most active in the consumer privacy space, is lending its support in the rulemaking process.  The FTC specifically praised the NHTSA’s proposed requirement that the design of the V2V communication system limit the amount of data collected and stored to that which is necessary to serve its intended safety purpose.

According to the NHTSA, the V2V system “will not collect or store any data on individuals or individual vehicles, nor will it enable the government to do so.”  Therefore, the system can’t be used by law enforcement or insurance companies to identify if you are speeding or driving erratically.  In fact, if the NHTSA has its way, the V2V system will not collect any information identifying specific vehicles or owners or permit re-identification by reference to other sources.  Good news for those of us who would rather avoid those flashing blue lights in our rearview window.  More good news:  the NHTSA’s rules prohibit automakers from connecting V2V devices to other onboard computer systems in a way that would permit hackers to access those computers.  As with most new technologies, the devil’s in the details.  But the NHTSA claims the agency will obtain objective independent assessments of the proposed V2V system’s security risks.

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