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Summary:

The European Commission has announced a set of standards for connected car systems, but privacy enthusiasts will be glad to hear such systems won’t be mandated by law, unlike in the U.S. However, practically speaking, connected cars will become the norm.

Social Networked Cars: The Future of Connected Vehicles?

The European Union will not force automobile owners and manufacturers to use connected car systems, as the U.S. has recently said it will do, according to the office of digital agenda chief Neelie Kroes. But those that do use them will need to stick to agreed specifications.

On Wednesday Kroes and the European standards organizations CEN and ETSI announced that they had agreed on basic standards for what they call Cooperative Intelligence Transport Systems, or C-ITS. These are the standards that car makers will need to stick to if they want to sell connected cars in Europe, something that the European Commission expects to happen from 2015.

New scenarios

The idea behind C-ITS is to put systems into cars that will warn drivers of upcoming roadwork and accidents or if an emergency vehicle is trying to pass, use sensors to eliminate blind spots, and ultimately better control the flow of traffic in order to make transport somewhat greener and more efficient. To do this, the vehicles need to be able to talk to surrounding infrastructure and other vehicles, which is why standards are needed.

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In the U.S. — which is trying to harmonize its standardization efforts with Europe — the equivalent drive (pardon the pun) is known as vehicle-to-vehicle communications, or V2V. There, the Department of Transportation intends to mandate V2V connectivity in cars at some point.

However, that apparently won’t be the case in Europe. Asked whether C-ITS will be mandated, Kroes spokesman Ryan Heath told me via email:

“Not in the sense that your car must be a connected car, or that we will outlaw cars that don’t use the standards.

“But if the car is going to have connected features then – de facto — you’ll effectively have to use these standards if you want to sell it in Europe. Because within a few years virtually everyone will be using them and as a producer you’ll soon be at an obvious disadvantage if you don’t join the party.”

As the Commission notes, new cars will have this stuff in them anyway and kits will probably be made available to retrofit existing vehicles, so whether or not C-ITS is mandated is in some ways a moot point. However, it’s not a meaningless one.

Upsides and downsides

There are many advantages to the idea of connected cars. As Bill Ford — yes, that Ford — recently told my colleague Kevin Fitchard, networked vehicles will be able to form “platoons” if they’re heading in the same direction, with enormous efficiency benefits. Roads will take on a level of organization that is difficult to imagine today.

Of course, that scenario requires all cars to be part of the same network. It doesn’t work if non-connected cars are trying to cut in and out of the flow.

But there’s another side to this picture. A connected car is, by its nature, highly trackable. Even more than is the case today, every movement of such a vehicle will be a boon for surveillance. What’s more, these kinds of systems necessarily allow the system to take over control from the driver (those platoons won’t form themselves any other way), which raises the question of who controls the system.

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Civil liberties activists and hardcore motoring enthusiasts alike had a minor meltdown a couple weeks back when it emerged that European law enforcement officials are toying with the idea of a device that can stop cars by remote control. Perhaps this may end up like an automotive equivalent of CALEA, the U.S. law that forces manufacturers of communications equipment to insert backdoors for law enforcement purposes.

As it happens, the European Union is mandating a device called eCall, which will automatically call the emergency services if it detects a serious accident. However, that device is only activated in such a circumstance or when the driver manually sets it off, and the Commission insists it is not traceable.

The new breed of connected car technology that we’re talking about here is very traceable indeed, so from a privacy standpoint it is a pleasure to see the Commission say car makers won’t be forced to include it. Realistically, however, it looks like such systems will be tricky to avoid – with all the positive and negative repercussions that entails.

  1. Laws, politics and safety standards are worst enemies against trade and innovation. Sometimes true others not

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