June 3

Your new car has its own agenda!

What is your car telling its manufacturer about you? The issues around privacy and the data your car is collecting about you have become hot news recently, and it would appear that the law has not yet caught up with the technology that is commonly used in vehicles. This is a depressing story of greed and the desire for control of the consumer; a battle we appear to be losing as technology advances.

In Dan Fumano’s article in The Province on 17 March 2015, Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), describes the alarming amount of technical and personal information that your car may be transmitting back to the manufacturer, and raises disturbing questions that remain unanswered.

A car’s on-board computing systems could record data tracking where you are going, how long you’re there, and who you’re with”, said Gogolek, adding: “Who’s got access to that info? And for what purposes?”

The vast majority of consumers are not aware that, when they buy a car, they sign up to share so much personal information with the manufacturer—with no way to switch off the flow of information. Additionally, consumers are not permitted to access vital information that will enable them take responsibility for their own vehicle and to have it serviced properly.

Turning the screw, limiting choice, flouting Canadian law

Problems of privacy in the automotive industry started many years ago, but it is only recently that the consumer has become directly involved as a result of vehicles becoming wirelessly connected data-gatherers.

For many years, the independent automotive industry has been fighting a ‘right to repair’ campaign with manufacturers who were making it increasingly difficult and costly for independent technicians to access information they needed to service and repair their vehicles, which manufacturers claim is their private information.

So, it was with great relief and optimism that, on 29 September 2009, Tony Clement, the then-Minister for Industry, signed the Canadian Automotive Service Information Standard (CASIS) agreement. This voluntary agreement would “ensure a level playing field in the automotive service and repair marketplace,” according to Dale Finch, then Executive VP of National Automotive Traders Association. During the signing ceremony, Tony Clement assured the attendees that:

“The Government of Canada places a high importance on consumer protection and support for a competitive marketplace. Providing an environment for independent service providers to compete fairly and provide consumers with a quality of service and choice is our top priority.”

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The agreement was announced at a press conference on Parliament Hill and everyone thought this problem was sorted.

But just how committed is the Government of Canada to ensure their words have any practical meaning for consumers and consumer choice? FIPA’s 2015 report, The Connected Car – Who’s in the driving seat?, describes how Canadian consumers are subjected to a dizzying array of complicated privacy policies when they purchase a new vehicle. Very few, if any, comply with the Canadian Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which itself is vaguely worded and open to wide interpretation:

“Organizations may collect, use or disclose personal information only for purposes that a reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances (subs.5(3),PIPEDA).”

The problem is that manufacturers employ a wide variety of third parties (to provide various in-car technologies) to whom they defer responsibility for privacy standards and practices – many of which are wholly inadequate. These technologies may cover such functions as roadside assistance, auto financing, remote technical monitoring, navigation, entertainment, biometric monitoring, interior cameras and much more. The list is growing and, as yet, no one appears to be enforcing compliance with Canadian law as the data gets ever more personal, detailed and useful for both helpful as well as manipulative, illegal and invasive purposes.

Increasing manufacturers’ control at the expense of the consumer

It could be argued that the reason the industry agreed to CASIS, a voluntary agreement, was specifically to avoid being made to stick to their promises of cooperation with the independent maintenance and repair industry, should Private Member’s Bill C273 covering this very topic, brought by Brian Masse, have passed into law that same year. One can surmise that they could see where technology was headed even then, and they wanted to leave the legal door open so they could take advantage of the emerging data revolution.

Since CASIS was signed, access to necessary information has become increasingly more difficult and expensive to acquire for independent technicians to service and repair vehicles. Without costly tools and online subscriptions, even replacing simple, basic items such as, for instance, a start battery on a late model BMW, are not possible.

Naturally, it’s in a manufacturer’s interests to sell cars regularly, so obstacles to repairing them would certainly help their cause. Despite promising environmental responsibility in how their vehicles operate, they appear to be encouraging unnecessary regular vehicle replacement that is both damaging to the environment and costly for consumers.

Additionally, manufacturers are increasingly employing secure wireless telematics to gather ever-larger quantities of data from vehicles, bypassing and making somewhat obsolete the vehicle’s data port, which a service technician connects to in order to carry out what vehicle diagnostics are available to them. In this way, a manufacturer can monitor many aspects of a vehicle and predict maintenance issues without the service technician being involved.

The manufacturers’ grip on consumers is tightening as they promote inadequate low-cost servicing that shortens the life of new vehicles that are more than capable of lasting 20 or 30 years when serviced properly. This illusion of cost-saving is actually driving an unnecessary and expensive replacement cycle, as consumers are increasingly pushed to replace vehicles even before the manufacturer’s warranty coverage expires. This planned obsolescence, in turn, causes wastage of precious planetary resources and a considerable recycling problem; only serving to protect the interests of manufacturers.

The increasing complexity of vehicles, the requirement for regular software updates and the ‘closed loop’ on maintenance facilitated by telematics, all make it easier to hamper independent shops who, incidentally, repair 75% of Canada’s vehicles and employ upwards of 420,000 people, according to Automotive Industries Association (AIA). Given the AIA’s claim that the average age of vehicles in Canada is 9.26 years, one can only wonder how this situation will impact consumers who have recently bought vehicles and intend to keep them that long. It also begs the question as to how many independent auto shops will be able to survive.

Ultimately, it’s the consumer who pays for all these shenanigans. As more and more local independent shops either give up or go bust, communities will be denied a local, friendly, independent facility that looks after them properly and cares for their vehicles. At the same time, consumers will become ‘locked in’ to vehicle replacement cycles while at the same time allowing their lives to be microscopically examined and commercially objectified within what has traditionally been the private space of their vehicle.

Is this what consumers deserve?

What do you feel about this situation? Are you concerned? We’d love to hear about your experiences, so please leave a comment below.


Photo courtesy National Roads and Motorists’ Association. This photo has been edited from the original.


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