What your car knows about you — and who it’s telling

WASHINGTON — Today’s vehicles have sensors that continuously monitor hundreds of data points — everything from a driver’s steering, acceleration and braking habits to fuel use, emissions and engine hours — and those vehicles aren’t keeping that information to themselves.

Sensors also include GPS data, air bags to detect if there is someone in the passenger seat and even for windshield wipers to keep track of when a vehicle is being driven in the rain.

Many of today’s vehicles are equipped with the technology to wirelessly transmit that information directly to the auto manufacturer without the owner knowing how that data is being used.

It’s called telematics.

“Telematics is all of the data from those sensors as well as the normal diagnostic and mechanical data needed to service your vehicle being sent out wirelessly directly from your vehicle to your car’s manufacturer,” Behzad Rassuli, with the Auto Care Association in Bethesda, told WTOP.

“Manufacturers are the only ones who can access that data. You, as the owner of the car, don’t have access to all that data or control over where it is sent,” he said.

Most of us aren’t even aware of it.

A consumer survey by the trade group found that 72 percent of vehicle owners have never heard anything about telematics, and when given the definition most still didn’t understand it.

The Auto Care Association says its concern is that owners have no control over the data’s use. And owner access to that data could be helpful to conveniently and affordably maintain your vehicle and improve safety.

“The car companies own your data, and in some cases may be selling your data to insurance companies or advertising companies,” Rassuli said.

“We’ve gotten used to this concept as consumers with services like Facebook and Gmail, but the proposition is a little different. Our cars are usually our second biggest purchase after a house, so you’d think if you buy the car, you aren’t also giving up that data for free,” he said.

General Motors even recently monitored driver radio listing habits.

Auto manufacturer mining of vehicle owner data is not to be confused with safe driver programs offered by insurance companies, like Allstate’s Drivewise or Progressive’s Snapshot, where drivers volunteer to share vehicle data in exchange for policy discounts.

When asked, the association says more than 8 in 10 U.S. vehicle owners and lessees think car owners should have full access to and control of their vehicle’s data, including maintenance and repair information, and 88 percent think the owner should decide who has access to that data.

Most people still like the high-tech self-monitoring our vehicles can now do, with 80 percent agreeing that advancements in safety technology in vehicles make them feel safer on the road.

The online survey was conducted by Ipsos on behalf of the Auto Care Association between Aug. 22 and Aug. 30, and included a sample of nearly 4,600 drivers in the U.S.

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Jeff Clabaugh

Jeff Clabaugh has spent 20 years covering the Washington region's economy and financial markets for WTOP as part of a partnership with the Washington Business Journal, and officially joined the WTOP newsroom staff in January 2016.

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