Automobile Data Surveillance and the Future of Black Boxes
Tesla Motors gave one of its electric cars to John Broder, a very outspoken electric-car skeptic from the New York Times, for a test drive. After a negative review, Tesla revealed that it logged a dizzying amount of data from that test drive. The company then matched the reporter’s claims against its logs and published a rebuttal. Broder rebutted the rebuttal, and others have tried to figure out who is lying and who is not.
What’s interesting to me is the sheer amount of data Tesla Motors automatically collected about the test drive. From the rebuttal:
After a negative experience several years ago with Top Gear, a popular automotive show, where they pretended that our car ran out of energy and had to be pushed back to the garage, we always carefully data log media drives.
Read the article to see what they logged: power consumption, speed, ambient temperature, control settings, location, and so on.
The stakes are high here. Broder and the New York Times are concerned about their journalistic integrity, which affects their brand. And Tesla Motors wants to sell cars.
The implication is that Tesla Motors only does this for media test drives, but it gives you an idea of the sort of things that will be collected once automobile black boxes become the norm. We’re used to airplane black boxes, which only collected a small amount of data from the minutes just before an incident. But that was back when data was expensive. Now that it’s cheap, expect black boxes to collect everything all the time. And once it’s collected, it’ll be used. By auto manufacturers, by insurance companies, by car rental companies, by marketers. The list will be long.
But as we’re learning from this particular back-and-forth between Broder and Tesla Motors, even intense electronic surveillance of the actions of a person in an enclosed space did not succeed in providing an unambiguous record of what happened. To know that, the car company would have had to have someone in the car with the journalist.
This will increasingly be a problem as we are judged by our data. And in most cases, neither side will spend this sort of effort trying to figure out what really happened.
EDITED TO ADD (2/21): CNN weighs in.