Modern cars are often described as “computers on wheels.” They come with automated driver assistance systems, large display screens, Internet connections and a multitude of ways to sync with smartphones.
Yet in the rush to innovate and one-up competitors with ever newer technology, things may have gone too far. Some developments have made driving safer, but others veer toward tech excess that can actually harm drivers. Cars in the current generation can be pricier to repair, harder to understand and operate and, some experts in the field say, more likely to cause distraction and driver disengagement.
And a report released last week now suggests that some new car tech also poses a major threat to data privacy. The new report was issued by the Mozilla Foundation, an Internet-focused nonprofit group, and concludes that when it comes to handling users’ personal information, today’s high-tech cars are the worst category of consumer products the organization has ever reviewed. Cars “have evolved into a privacy nightmare,” says Jen Caltrider, director of Mozilla’s privacy reporting program. Because they incorporate motion and pressure sensors, GPS, cameras, microphones and smartphone connectivity, modern vehicles can collect an astounding range of information on their drivers and passengers. The researchers assessed 25 popular brands’ privacy policies and found that 21 of these allow car companies to share or sell customer data with external service providers, data brokers and other businesses. Privacy policies from two brands—Kia and Nissan—even include a clause that notes that each company may collect and disclose data on users’ sexual orientation or sexual behavior.
Still, permissive policies are worrying regardless of how they’re currently applied, Caltrider says. Such information could be used against vulnerable people. For example, multiple vehicle brands’ policies advise that they might share customer data with U.S. law enforcement or government officials, even without warrants. In parts of the country with restrictive health care laws, those tracking data could be used as legal evidence against people seeking an abortion or gender-affirming care. Such sensitive customer data are also a target for illegal attacks: 17 out of the 25 car companies experienced some form of data leak, breach or hack in the past three years, according to the Mozilla report. A lack of data privacy is one of those things that often doesn’t seem like a problem until it is, Caltrider says. “It might not be impacting you now. But you might also not realize when suddenly it is, and you don’t have any choice or control over it,” she adds. Change will likely only come at the policy level, Caltrider says. There is no federal data privacy law, however, and only a handful of states grant residents the right to have their data deleted on request.
Privacy isn’t the only thing drivers need to keep an eye on. The Mozilla Foundation report’s findings are just the latest in a series of concerns that experts have voiced about the technology in our personal vehicles.
The true cost of high-tech cars is multifaceted, but one component comes down to dollars and cents in a very direct way. Repairing cars that come with advanced driver-assistance technology or other intensively computerized features can be up to three times as expensive as similar maintenance on vehicles without such tech, says Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering and industry relations at the American Automobile Association (AAA). Additionally, not all shops are equipped to repair such vehicles. Windshield replacement, for instance, “used to be a pretty straightforward operation,” Brannon says. Many vehicles, however, now require specialized glass that allows the internal cameras to function. In these cars, the cameras must be recalibrated after windshield installation, adding another step to the process. These cameras do enable some driver-assistance features with a clear safety benefit: automated emergency braking, which has been tested and refined over a decade, is now the industry standard on all new vehicles and can significantly reduce crash rates, Brannon says. “But there is a cost to that,” he adds, “and particularly a cost that comes with the repair of that vehicle.”
Beyond higher repair costs, drivers often end up dissatisfied with the high-tech features themselves and report frequent problems with components such as complicated door handles, infotainment interfaces and wireless phone chargers. In Brannon’s view, time will likely help defray some of the added expense and difficulties to both drivers and repair shops as these sorts of vehicles become more common. Plus, it’s hard to put a price on added safety. But Brannon contends that not all new features and vehicle designs are boosting overall safety.
“There is often a gap between what is marketed in those systems, both in the naming and in advertisements, and what the systems actually do in real life,” he says. “The gap between those two things makes it a very dangerous situation for someone [who] does not take the time to understand the system.” Brannon gives the example of partially automated features such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance. Both require a driver to ultimately control a vehicle and to always watch the road. Yet Brannon says these features might be labeled with terms such as “traffic-aware cruise control” or “active steering assist,” which can imply that a human can leave much of the job up to the car. In the worst case, there’s Tesla’s suite of assistance features that are labeled “autopilot” and “full self-driving”—despite the features not actually functioning in accordance with those names. Last year California passed a law attempting to force Tesla to adjust these names to be less misleading. Tesla did not respond to repeated e-mails seeking comment for this article.
New car owners rarely receive training on when and how to properly deploy these partially automated features. As a result, “a lot of drivers and other road users don’t really have a good grasp of what this technology is for, how it works and its limitations,” says William Horrey, technical director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, AAA’s nonprofit arm. Some of these features are meant to be used only in certain scenarios, such as on highways and not in more complex city environments, for example.
That lack of training can have unintended consequences, Horrey says. As driver assistance advances, some studies suggest human drivers will become more disengaged. When people believe their cars can conduct much of the driving process automatically, they’re more likely to check out or multitask—and potentially cause accidents—both Horrey and Brannon say.
Other features, too, can disrupt safety via poor design. The biggest culprits, according to some experts, are the sprawling, multilayered, touch-screen-based interfaces that have taken over new vehicle consoles. In recent years these displays have grown larger and incorporated more components, says David Strayer, an applied cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, who studies driver behavior. “There’s more information for the driver to look at,” Strayer explains—and with more information comes more distraction. Any glances away from the road that last longer than two seconds elevate crash risk, he says. Many cars allow drivers to input GPS directions or dictate texts and complex commands via Bluetooth or to navigate a touch screen to manage basic functions while the vehicle is in motion. Some consoles even display video. All of these features can absorb a driver’s attention for far longer than is safe.
Everyone generally knows that texting while driving is a bad idea. With built-in features, however, drivers tend to think, “If it’s in the car, it must have been put there because it’s safe, it’s been fully vetted and it’s going to work,” Strayer says. But that’s often not the case, he notes. “We have not kept safety as our priority,” Strayer adds.
Brannon agrees. “There is a point where you cross the threshold of benefit and cross into detriment. There’s no question about it,” he says. Some industry research has demonstrated that old-fashioned tactile knobs and buttons can be a much safer, simpler and easier to fix alternative to touch screens and voice commands. But going back to buttons would mean admitting that ever advancing technology isn’t always the best fix.