During a week in which the House of Representatives voted to repeal Obama era Internet privacy protections, Tesla has come under fire from owners who dispute the all-electric carmaker’s right to disclose individual driver data to the media while also failing to share that data with the drivers themselves.
A pattern of Tesla public data dissemination has occurred after accidents in which Tesla vehicles have had automation software engaged. Tesla vehemently stands behind the safety and reliability of its cars, citing how its “Autopilot has been shown to save lives and reduce accident rates.” That comment came as result of a request from The Guardian. In explanation as to why Tesla releases individual driver information to the media, the Tesla spokesperson added, “We believe it is important that the public have a factual understanding of our technology.”
It is important to note that, in a famous case in which a Tesla Model S was the subject of serious scrutiny following a driver’s death after colliding with a truck while the driver-assist feature was engaged, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a report of no fault on Tesla’s part. Indeed the report stated that “Tesla vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation.”
What’s being contested here then? Several things, actually. Tesla feels it has an explicit corporate need to stand behind its driving-assist Autopilot technology through public disclosures of individual driving data when a crash occurs. Individual Tesla drivers, on the other hand, express a desire to maintain the right to information privacy regarding their driving performance. And, while Tesla has disseminated individual driver information to the media following Tesla crashes involving its Autopilot system, it continues to deny data sharing with individual customers. Moreover, the company does not follow the commonly accepted research practice of gaining permissions from study participants prior to including them in a data set.
And now some Tesla owners are fired up.
The technology available within a Tesla can provide information about the location of a driver’s hands on the steering wheel, if and when a driver’s door opens, and, importantly, the engagement and performance levels of autonomous technology. Tesla insists that it only releases specific driver data to the media when information has been misrepresented to the public.
Tesla crashes always seem to catch media attention. After a fatal early morning Tesla Model S crash in Indianapolis, a distraught dad claimed that his daughter would still be alive if she had been driving any other car but a Tesla. In a Baarn, Netherlands accident in which a Tesla Model S collided at high speed with a tree and killed the driver, Tesla investigated alongside local authorities. Uncertain as to whether Tesla’s Autopilot feature was engaged, the company said at the time it would analyze data collected through vehicle recovery procedures and “ share it with the public” once reports became final. In 2016, the first crash in China involving a Tesla operating in Autopilot mode caused a great deal of consternation. And a driver of a Model X that crashed along a trek to Yellowstone in Montana posted an open letter to Elon Musk and Tesla, asking the company to “take responsibility for the mistakes of Tesla products” and accusing Tesla of using drivers as “lab rats” for testing of its Autopilot system.
It is that dehumanization of Tesla drivers which has suddenly come to the forefront. Yes, as in all vehicular incidents, various factors come into play, especially driver error: physical (tired), emotional (angry), psychological (confused), or intellectual (distracted) factors occur when a person gets behind the wheel. But that’s not what is at issue in the case of drivers’ rights to information privacy when they engage technology applications. Is driving a personal act, a type of agency for which the driver assumes all responsibility? And, if all research institutions are required to acquire ethical consent from participants, why is Tesla absolved of such responsibility? The answers to these questions will continue to evolve as technology advances at amazing speeds.
In the upcoming age of self-driving cars, every touch screen signal is transmitted to the cloud as an immediate extension of a car’s functionality. A year ago, at a Congressional hearing about driverless cars, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey questioned over and over whether driverless car manufacturers would assume a minimum standard for consumer privacy protection. None of the constituents present answered his question.
And now, with the U.S. Congress clearly opposed to internet privacy protections, will the public — Tesla drivers included — give up the fight? Will it be “the classic politics of resignation,” as Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor, asserts? He says, “Most people… pick fights they know they can convince people they can win.” It’s an era in which the U.S. Presidential transition team members, according to Politico, had to sign non-disclosure agreement to make certain they keep all of their work confidential. Tesla, too, likes to keep internal information quiet, yet California lawmakers sent a letter to Tesla in January, 2017 asking the company to loosen its employee confidentiality agreement.
Major institutions want their information kept inside closed doors. Can drivers claim the right to privacy of what will become ubiquitous self-driving technology information systems of the future?
A Tesla spokesperson says the following in regards to the release of individual driver data:
“In unusual cases in which claims have already been made publicly about our vehicles by customers, authorities or other individuals, we have released information based on the data to either corroborate or disprove these claims. The privacy of our customers is extremely important and something we take very seriously, and in such cases, Tesla discloses only the minimum amount of information necessary… [We] transfer and disclose information, including personal and non-personally identifiable information … to protect the rights, property, safety, or security of the Services, Tesla, third parties, visitors to our Services, or the public, as determined by us in our sole discretion.”