Skip to main content

Peter Norton is associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, and the author of Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving.

Big-time investors like to say that “data is the new oil.” Google, Facebook and other companies have drilled the digital oil fields of personal data, achieving rates of growth 20th-century oil barons would have envied.

But to collect personal data, such companies have to present themselves as something else. Google is a data-collection company that offers internet search and other services; Facebook is a data-collection company that offers a social-media platform. To these companies, the services they provide are means to an end – and if the means and the end diverge, the end must prevail.

If trading personal data for services sounds benign, the headlines of the past several years offer hard-earned wisdom. The exchange bears enormous hazards, which we can evade only if we are alert.

In October, when Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was becoming Meta, he wrote: “Our mission remains the same – it’s still about bringing people together.” The paradox, of course, is that perhaps nothing has driven more people further apart than Facebook. Data collection requires engagement, and on social media, divisive information – including disinformation – engages.

If Facebook were a social-media company primarily interested in “bringing people together,” promoting engagement by incentivizing misinformation would be bad business. But Facebook is a data-collection company – and the difference matters.

The Facebook paradox is that data collection can turn a company that purports to unite people into a company that divides them. But what happens when the paradox applies to an automaker that purports to offer safe mobility?

The attention economy can only work when it commands our attention. But even media addicts must sleep. And if they drive, they must commit at least much of their attention to driving.

Now, newcomers in the data-collection oil field want to open one of these frontiers to data collection. Some developers of high-tech driving systems want to collect and monetize data from vehicle occupants. Automakers are already making vehicles that can collect personal data from the people in them, and are working hard to find ways to collect more. This dangerous trend is accelerating.

Most drivers drive alone most of the time, so companies do not want to limit their data sources to passengers. Even limited vehicle automation offers the chance of access to a greater share of the driver’s attention, as the apparent attentional demands of driving ebb. Like Facebook, these automakers have offered attractive services, but less as ends in themselves than as a means of data collection. And as the Facebook paradox demonstrates, the difference matters.

If data is the new oil, and vehicle occupants are the new oil field, then cars are becoming the new oil rigs. We still have time to apply the lessons we learned the hard way from Facebook. But will we?

Tesla – always a generous source of object lessons – has offered a case in point. Since 2017, some Tesla models have included a screen mounted on the dashboard, midway between driver and passenger. Ordinarily it displays a navigation map and other driver interfaces and controls.

But in a mode strategically named Passenger Play, the screen offers anyone in easy reach of it – including the driver – attention-absorbing video games. Tesla hires game developers, explaining that it “strives to make its cars the most fun possible,” and that “bringing video game experiences to the car helps increase that fun.”

Passenger Play was available in more than 500,000 Tesla cars. But in December, the company, facing a U.S. federal investigation, belatedly made its vehicles’ dashboard video games inoperable whenever the cars are in motion.

Tesla claims its “vehicles are engineered to be the safest cars in the world,” and its CEO Elon Musk says, “I don’t think there’s a CEO on this planet that cares more about safety than me.” But a car can’t be safe if its driver is distracted.

The company also claims “Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” But if it makes driving “the most fun possible,” sustainability will be elusive.

The lesson is not that Facebook and Tesla are irresponsible companies. Both are striving to do what for-profit companies must do: earn profits. The real lesson is that if companies claiming to sell safe mobility also sell data, we can expect the data-collection mission to distort the mobility mission, sometimes in dangerous ways.

Among automakers seeking to make the most of the “new oil,” Tesla is far from alone. General Motors, for example, promises that with state-of-the-art technology, we can have a future of ubiquitous driving but with “zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.” But GM also promises that within 20 years, in-vehicle entertainment in fully autonomous vehicles will be so attractive that people will just enjoy riding around, quite apart from actually getting anywhere.

At “Exhibit Zero,” GM’s virtual spectacle at the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show, the company promised viewers that they can expect to enjoy a “night out that stayed in the car.” Riding around, alone or in small groups, will be that much fun. And data collection, not safety or sustainability, will make it lucrative.

Some high-tech vehicle systems, such as automatic emergency braking, can and do prevent collisions and save lives. But the vastly more lucrative electronic frontier is in-vehicle media. The stubborn barrier, however, is the attention-demanding task of driving; vehicle automation is the means of overcoming this obstacle.

Tech companies and automakers are hard at work pursuing a future of fully autonomous driving, which would erase the barrier entirely. GM and other companies explain their goal in terms of the three zeroes – crashes, emissions and congestion – but among themselves, the hot topic is vehicle occupants’ attention.

Back in 2015, in a report to the auto industry, the consultancy KPMG suggested that an autonomous vehicle could be “the ultimate mobile device,” and even a “moving entertainment centre.”

In 2016 another consultancy, McKinsey, invited its clients “to enter the car data monetization arena,” asking them to consider “how much more content and how many more movies and virtual-reality video games could be sold if drivers could enjoy themselves while riding in their autonomous vehicles.”

Besides sales of games and streaming media, there are enormous amounts of data to collect and monetize from vehicle occupants. People in cars using social media, playing games or otherwise engaged online would generate far more data than people watching the road.

Vehicle automation can release drivers’ attention so it can be redirected to the media that generate data, and then to the media that the collected data is used to target them with. Already there is intense pressure to get drivers’ attention, even when vehicle automation is not good enough to serve as a substitute for it.

As phones became data-collection devices, companies that collect data grew so adept at commanding phone users’ attention that compulsive device use has become a ubiquitous affliction. If cars become data collection devices as well, we should not be surprised to find similar effects, including effects that reverse any progress toward GM’s three zeroes.

In social media we recognized these threats too late. Incalculable damage has been done, though we can hope to repair some of it, introduce regulations and strive for better.

But we have not yet recognized the analogous risks in highly automated or autonomous vehicles. Technology can make a vehicle safer, cleaner and more efficient, but a data collection platform that works by representing itself as a safe, clean and efficient mode of transport will fail by all three measures, because to maximize data collection, it cannot let other values get in the way.

It is hardly surprising that companies are already trying to engage drivers’ attention, even while their attention must still be committed to driving. It is, however, surprising and disturbing that we still expect automakers and tech companies to prioritize safety, sustainability and efficiency as they develop high-tech vehicles.

If the hard-earned lesson of social media is that services that collect vast data must be regulated, let us apply this lesson to the companies that want our transport modes to be their data collection systems, before we learn the lesson the hard way – again.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.