Self-driving cars will be a huge problem for privacy, says expert

The vehicles record everything around them—and can be used to profile pedestrians

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      According to officials at Waymo, the company developing Google’s self-driving cars, its autonomous vehicles are months away from reaching everyday people. Since January 2017, the organization has sent test cars to motor around cities including Atlanta, Austin, Detroit, and Phoenix. Driving more than 2.7 million miles without human input, the vehicles have only been involved in one accident—a fact that’s prompted Waymo’s chief executive John Krafcik to announce that its fleet could ferry ordinary Phoenix residents as soon as next year.

      In short—self-driving cars have arrived.

      There are huge benefits to the technology. Over 1.2 million people die on the world’s roads annually. In Canada alone, vehicle crashes due to human error cost the country over $65 billion a year—a figure that amounts to between two and six percent of its GDP. As well as being safer, self-driving cars allow citizens to live and work further away from city centres, as their work-day can begin as soon as they get inside a vehicle. More people will ditch their individual cars, meaning there will be significantly less requirement for parking in cities, and more areas for green space or urban farming.

      There are, however, huge risks. Hacking, software failures, and letting computers make life-and-death decisions inspire unease among individuals. But for Paul Godsmark, co-founder and CTO of Cavcoe, an organization that advises the public and private sector on autonomous vehicles, the biggest issues will be around data collection and privacy.

      “The technology works through a number of sensors,” he tells the Straight on the line from his office in St Albert. “The principal one is lidar—a radar that uses infrared light to give a very accurate 3D picture. Then there’s radar for longer-distance detection, and ultrasonic sensors for things that are close—similar to the back-up warnings in a regular vehicle. There are also cameras with machine vision that check for traffic lights, road signs, and other obstacles. It sees 360-degrees around itself, 10 to 20 times a second. That’s a lot of data.”

      Godsmark believes that when the vehicles are launched, they likely won’t be sold individually—at least not at first. Instead, the manufacturers will offer a self-driving rideshare service. Those vehicles will be in operation 30 percent of the time—far more than a typical car, which is used for only 5 percent of its lifecycle—and record everything around them.

      “These vehicles aren’t just going to have data on your journey,” he says. “They see everything from the road. Even if you don’t sign up to their services, if you’re out on the streets, it’s possible to see you regularly, profile you—even without facial recognition—and learn things about your habits.

      “These cars are basically mobile sensors that gather data,” he continues. “We can send them to wherever we want data to be collected. So overnight, between the hours of midnight and seven in the morning, most people aren’t looking for a ride. If a company owns a fleet of vehicles, they can offer those cars to businesses or factories that want external security. The vehicle can be parked outside the premises, and companies would pay to have it monitor the surroundings. There are whole new business models that could be based on the sensors on these vehicles.”

      In Godsmark’s view, everybody is a stakeholder in the progress of autonomous cars. It’s important, he says, to raise awareness of the pros and cons of self-driving technology among lawmakers and individuals alike. Taking to the stage at the B.C. Tech Summit, he’ll be discussing whether society is ready to accept automated driving.

      “In British Columbia, to take one example, there’s been a big pushback from the unions,” he says. “If autonomous vehicles are as good as we hope, we estimate that up to 20 percent of jobs will be directly impacted. There’s a lot we have to talk about.”

      Paul Godsmark speaks at the B.C. Tech Summit at the Vancouver Convention Centre West on Tuesday (May 15).

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twiter @KateWilsonSays