WATCH OUT

In China, the data your car collects about you is for sale

Think of everything that can be gleaned from your driving habits. The type of job you have, the schools your kids go to, how often you exercise, or eat out, are you an aggressive driver, or a docile one, do you listen to news radio or pop music; it’s a seemingly endless list. Now imagine that this information can be bound to your real identity using government databases.

This is what is happening in China, according to a Mercedes-Benz executive.

Speaking at The Future of Mobility Summit last week, Claus Ehlers, a director of strategy at the automaker, told a standing room only crowd that he was approached by a company in China offering to provide consumer behavior profiles of all of the drivers of Mercedes-Benz cars in China. The company was combining driving data with government data it also had access to, according to Ehlers.

Ehlers didn’t say specifically what the government data entailed, but the company was seemingly offering robust consumer profiles. Those could be valuable to automakers in a number of ways. It could be used to market a new car to a potential buyer just at the time when she is most likely to buy, or give insight into how much a certain customer is willing to spend on a vehicle. A driver with a penchant for fast driving might be targeted with a vehicle with a more powerful engine.

The Chinese firm—which Ehlers did not name—also offered to provide perhaps even more valuable data to the automaker: a list of Chinese drivers who had the same customer profile and driving habits as current Benz drivers, but owned other car brands. He said Mercedes declined the offer of the unnamed Chinese company, citing privacy concerns.

Ehlers was speaking Feb. 2, on a panel at The Future of Mobility Summit in Palo Alto, Calif., an event hosted by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Like mobile phones, cars can collect massive amounts of data. On top of diagnostic and basic driving information, some recently released cars can track a driver’s eye movements, the weight of people in the front seats, and how often a driver’s hands are on the wheel, according to the New York Times (paywall). Increasingly, cars are able to transmit this information back to automakers through cell and wifi connectivity.

Some of it is straightforwardly for the driver’s benefit. A mechanic could know what’s in need of repair even before a vehicle ends up in the shop. A automaker can see how the climate in different locales is affecting car performance.

Other information could be used to track drivers in uncomfortable ways, like using driving habits to target advertising to certain consumers or aiding law enforcement by sharing a list of cars known to habitually drive above the speed limit.

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