This article appears in the 2018 Auto preview guide.
This isn’t big news to anyone who uses the telematics system in their car now. OnStar is one of the most popular and is now found in all new General Motors vehicles. In the past, these systems were optional and owners could opt out of the services offered. While that may still be possible, automakers are already planning to make telematics systems universal, and they will soon do much more than they do now.
For example, right now cars priced in the low $20K range can do things like flash your lights upon request or lock and unlock doors. Automakers can do this anyplace your car goes where a cellphone signal is available. The technology at its core is a dumbed-down cellphone. That includes a GPS locator. Which is how, when you call OnStar or any brand’s telematics operator, they already know where you are in real time. They can tell you, for example, that there will be a Starbucks two exits ahead of you on the road you are traveling.
This is technology that exists right now in your car. Your automaker and its information partners track your vehicle’s location in real time with no “opt-in” from you.
Real-time tracking has been used by police to catch criminals and monitor their location already. Most notably, when the Boston Marathon bombers carjacked a Mercedes crossover, the police quickly located the vehicle using its onboard mbrace system.
Telematics systems already keep track of your location for safety reasons. In the event of a crash, they automatically note the severity of the crash and the status of airbag deployment. That information, along with your exact location, is then sent to first responders if you subscribe to that service. This function can be enabled on the go with a call to the customer service team or simply by pushing the in-car button.
Could the location of one’s vehicle be used in a court of law against them, in say a divorce case? Actually, yes — in divorce cases GPS data is admissible in some jurisdictions. In the past, one party might place a GPS tracker inside of a vehicle. With modern vehicles, that capability is already available via the GPS signal from the telemetry system.
Devices that listen to our conversations are also becoming ubiquitous. Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and many more of the gadgets we use are always listening, and that is how they know when we ask them to help us. However, in our cars, we have long felt alone and in private unless we actively opted into some sort of technology. That is becoming old-school as automakers tap into our car’s location and other data without involving us. Tesla, for example, data-logs almost all of the actions owners’ cars take when equipped with Autopilot. The company owns that data, not you, and Tesla has used it in legal proceedings to defend itself against the car’s owner.
The latest news on automotive monitoring and direct remote action by automakers is the announcement by GM that by 2020 its cars will have over-the-air updates. GM CEO Mary Barra recently told reporters that, “We are in the process of deploying a new electrical architecture, which is a pretty comprehensive undertaking, and that’s well under way … as well as a whole new generation of infotainment systems.”
These new systems will have the ability to not only monitor the vehicle’s location and other information, but GM will be able to alter the vehicle’s software remotely. GM plans to do this to make corrections and improvements, and to do so without requiring any action on the part of owners.