Approximately ninety-six years ago, on January 5, 1918, Scientific American made the following prediction about future car technology:
The car of the future won’t leave anything to be done by man power. In two or three years foot brakes will be things of the past except on cheap cars. Why should a man exert muscle to stop a car any more than to start it? What’s that great brute of an engine idling under the hood for? Now, jump three jumps more. If the engine starts and lights and pumps and stops itself, why shouldn’t it steer the car? Revolutionary? Nonsense!...The car of the future will have no such thing as a “driver’s seat.” All the seats in the car save the rear one will be moveable. Driving will be done from a small control board, which can be held in the lap. It will be connected to the mechanism by a flexible electric cable. A small finger lever, not a wheel, will guide the car.
Although the writer of this piece was a bit overenthusiastic about the timetable, he was not far off in his predictions about future car technology. But, here’s one feature that even he didn’t imagine: your car helping you to manage your health.
Why do I need that?
It may seem as though only older people worry about their health–or need to. But, year after year, health-related New Year’s resolutions top the list. You can look at virtually any article listing popular resolutions and find ones that read like this:
- Lose weight
- East a healthier diet
- Get fit
- Quit smoking
- Drink less
What’s the common denominator in each of these? An underlying concern about health! Now that we’ve settled that matter . . . let’s move on to news about cars and health.
Technology available today
If you’re willing to pay $95,000 for a Mercedes-Benz, your car’s computer can note–via changes in your body and driving–if you’re getting tired. If that happens, a “big red coffee cup” appears on the dashboard; you’ll hear a chime and you’ll be asked to pull over to get some coffee to fight your drowsiness.
Nissan has the technology to stop you from driving if you’ve had too much alcohol to drink and technology already exists to take the driver’s temperature. But this is, as you’ve probably already guessed, just the tip of the iceberg.
Ford S-Max Concept Car and More
Cars and health are in the news right now largely because of the announcement of the S-Max, a concept car that can monitor the driver’s heart rate through an electrocardiogram (ECG) and detect unusual rates or acute problems. If a heart attack is being detected, the car can contact medical help and put into place safety systems to help prevent an accident. The S-Max can also monitor blood sugar (glucose), helpful for people with diabetes. There are approximately 26 million people with diabetes in the United States alone, of all ages, so this is a potential benefit for a significant segment of the population.
In 2012, David Melcher, a Ford research engineer, discussed how people can manage their allergies and chronic medical conditions through features in their car.
Other car manufacturers, according to TechRadar, are planning medical additions to their cars’ features. Examples include:
- Pulse monitoring via the steering wheel
- The car notifying the driver’s family if his/her vital signs look shaky
- The car automatically driving you to a doctor or hospital, if necessary
So, what do you think? Sound good?
Not so fast
There are some down sides to this added technology, including the additional cost. Plus, what happens if there is a false alarm? If so, a non-drinker could miss an important meeting because of an incorrect breathalyzer reading, while a family may get a scary call about a loved one’s health for no good reason.
Then there is what Cheryl Dancey Balough and Richard C. Balough call “cyberterrorism on wheels.” Cheryl is the communications co-director of the American Bar Association’s Cyberspace Law Committee and adjunct professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Richard is the co-chair of the American Bar Association’s Mobile Commerce of the Cyberspace Law Committee–and both are founding members of Balough Law Offices, LLC. In short, these two are experts.
In November 2013, they published an article on the American Bar Association site titled, “Cyberterrorism on Wheels: Are Today’s Cars Vulnerable to Attack?” in which they succinctly sum up the problem at hand.
Modern cars, they point out, are controlled by “complex computer systems that include millions of lines of code connected by internal networks. Cars have become computers on wheels . . . Cars have dozens of electronic control units (ECUs) embedded in the body, doors, dash, roof, trunk, seats, wheels, navigation equipment, and entertainment centers. Common wired networks interconnect these ECUs, which also can connect to the Internet.” And, the reality is that any computer can be hacked.
Richard and Cheryl share more useful information, as summed up below:
If that isn’t scary enough, entertainment systems, hands-free cellphones and satellite radio also provide entry points for malware. So can tire pressure monitoring systems and those such as OnStar that provide instant access to emergency services.
To add to the picture, in 2014, General Motors will offer wireless services in their vehicles for phone and laptop use. And, as Cheryl and Richard point out, all of a car’s ECUs are connected so, once malware finds its way into one entry point, it can flow throughout the vehicle. As self-driving features and vehicle-to-vehicle communication (which allows vehicles to share information about location, speed, direction of travel and more with one another) become more common, the opportunities for hacking will become even more frequent.
By 2040 (just 26 years from now!), estimates suggest that 75% of cars will be self-driving. So, with that in mind, is it any surprise that your car can–and perhaps will someday–be hacked? To add to the problem, it’s estimated that the average auto maker is approximately 20 years behind software companies in fighting off cyber-attacks.
Mind your own business
What about privacy issues? The Wall Street Journal takes on the issue of privacy concerns with biometric cars–meaning cars that take in data (your heart rate, your breathing rate, and the sweatiness of your palms, for example) via sensors; these cars then respond in certain ways to certain data to help prevent accidents.
Joe Smith, a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal, acknowledges that people will want to be able to control the monitoring. He expects that manufacturers will honor that, building biometric cars that come complete with opt-in technologies; this should allow people to decide whether they want to be monitored and where the info does or doesn’t go. Joe notes that Ford says they won’t store any info without consent.
Brian Reimer, an MIT researcher, chimes in, sharing how people today need to juggle increasing amounts of information and make increasing amounts of strategic decisions just to drive–and so the biometric car would add automated features to help the driver when he or she needs the assistance. Brian does not foresee significant privacy issues with biometric driving, comparing monitored driving with online shopping with credit cards. The convenience, he points out, can override the risk.
Brainstorming with Attorney Richard Balough
Will your privacy really be well protected, though? Will the promises being made today–as people are being persuaded to accept the technology–really be kept when drivers become more blasé about increasing encroachments upon privacy?
Richard talked to Advance Auto Parts about the possibilities. “A car,” Richard says to set the context, “is nothing more than a giant computer on wheels. Therefore, any time that monitoring occurs with a car, so can hacking.” So, it would seem that any bulletproof promises of privacy should be looked upon with a jaded eye.
Features on a car that monitor health have, Richard continues, “good sounding purposes” so the main question to ask yourself is “What am I giving up in exchange?” He equates this tradeoff to using one of those plastic cards at grocery stores that, once scanned by the cashier, give you a few cents more off of certain items. “In exchange, they know exactly what I’m buying and how often I’m buying it,” Richard says. “So in effect, I’ve sold them that information very cheaply–for maybe $2 a week.”
He also warns about how much companies can learn about a person with seemingly small bits of data. To that end, he refers to when Target got so good at predictive behavior through the data they collected from shoppers that they could predict when some were in the early stages of pregnancy. Once these women were identified, Target would send those shoppers mailers with relevant coupons. About a year after this program started, a man angrily entered a Target near Minneapolis, wanting to know why the store would send his daughter, still in high school, coupons for baby clothes and cribs.
The store manager was apologetic but, a few days later, the man told the manager that he’d talked to his daughter and she was, indeed, pregnant. To prevent a similar scenario from happening again, Target now mixes maternity-type ads in with ads for unrelated products, such as lawn care products, and sends those mailers to women believed to be pregnant.
Back to brainstorming: clearly, data is already easily and painlessly collected from people in everyday situations. So, we started to speculate about what a store could, theoretically speaking, do with the information they have about a particular person. “Could they sell it to my health insurance provider?” Richard wonders. “What if it shows that I buy two cases of beer every single week–and yet, on my health insurance application, I say that I never drink alcohol?”
Here’s another way that health insurance companies might gather information about you, in a way related to the main topic of this post. Let’s say that your health insurance company will offer you a discount if you agree to health monitoring in your car (which is similar, really, to getting a discount for a good driving record, which is monitored, albeit in a different way). You want the discount, so you go along with the plan, whether willingly or reluctantly.
“The car is gathering and offloading data,” Richard says. “Let’s say that this process is compromised through hacking. Is your health insurer in violation of HIPAA (which gives people certain rights to privacy as to their health conditions) because of the breach? And, what about the car manufacturers? If they create health monitoring systems that are breached, are they in violation of HIPAA?”
Or, let’s say that your car needs fixed and so the repair personnel hook up your car to a port. Will they have access to your health information? Are you okay with that? Does it seem reasonable that at least some of those workers might share what they learned?
Here’s another thought. Let’s say that you have a car accident and it appears to be the other driver’s fault. After all, he had the stop sign at the intersection and you did not. But then the police access your health data that was collected and stored by your car, and they notice that your sugar was pretty low (maybe you shouldn’t have been driving in the first place?) or that you didn’t seem to brake very quickly (maybe you could have prevented the accident?). Or breathalyzer technology shows that, even though your car started today, many times in the past it didn’t because of your alcohol consumption (maybe you’re pretty hung over right now). How will any of those facts change who gets cited?
On another subject: let’s say that a car automatically slows down because the driver appears sleepy or otherwise not in prime condition. What if that slowing down happens on a busy highway and that causes an accident? Who is liable?
Making your decision
No one has all of the answers right now, of course, and it’s likely that this debate will continue in the upcoming years. But, the bottom line is this: if you have the option of participating in health monitoring while you drive and you feel it might benefit you, think about these questions, offered up by Richard Balough, before making your decision:
- What information is being gathered?
- How is it stored?
- How is it encrypted–if it even is?
- Who has access to that data?
- Will I know who reviews it and when?
- What happens when there is a breach?
- Will I be made aware of that?
- Who is liable for that breach?
- If I had already agreed to be monitoring, did I in effect sign a waiver?
- Would that relieve the car manufacturer of any liability?
- Or would the court system decide that a typical driver wouldn’t have enough information to legally relieve manufacturers of liability?
“There is always a trade off,” Richard says. “You can get good services and/or perhaps save money if you agree to health monitoring, but in exchange you might be giving up more of your privacy.”
Ah. The head spins.
Editor's note: What do you think? We really need to you to weigh in on this controversial issue!
Original illustrations by John Sisler.