Tesla Vs. Customers: Whose Data Is It Anyway?

Coming on the heels of the US Congress caving to fat cat business interests by allowing them to sell people’s internet browsing history to the highest bidder, a controversy is brewing about how Tesla controls the data it collects from the nearly 200,000 cars it has on the road. Each of those cars sends reams of data back to the Tesla mothership, where company engineers pore over it to improve the company’s self driving software.

Tesla store in Sydney

But what if the owner wants to access that data? They’re out of luck, it seems. When an owner accepts delivery of that shiny new Model S of Model X, he or she accepts the terms of the company’s privacy policy, which grants the company the right to 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.” In other words, the company can use your data for any purpose that benefits it, but you cannot access that data for your own personal use.

What Data Is Collected?

What sort of data does Tesla collect? In addition to your location, it knows how fast you drive, the position of the throttle, whether or not the brake pedal was depressed, whether your hands were on the wheel, whether Autopilot or Autosteer were engaged, and countless other little tidbits.

The company has gotten some flak lately because of its tendency to use personal data to dispute a claim by a driver that one of its automobiles has malfunctioned. An owner in Southern California is suing the company, claiming his Model X suddenly accelerated through the back wall of his garage and into  his living room. Shortly after the accident, Tesla issued the following statement: “The evidence, including data from the car, conclusively shows that the crash was the result of [the owner] pressing the accelerator pedal all the way to 100 percent.” But it won’t share that data with the owner.

“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,” the company said in a statement to The Guardian. After reviewing a number of similar incidents, The Guardian says it could find not one instance where Tesla asked the owner’s permission before releasing such evidence to the press.

No Data For You!

A man in Switzerland who owns several Teslas was involved in an  accident last year when his car collided with a disabled van on a highway. He says his car was in Autopilot mode at the time and he wants to know why the car did not take evasive action to avoid the collision. Tesla has refused to provide that information to him. “I still love my Tesla,” he said. “Tesla is on the right tracks, but they need to speed up the pace and be more open and honest with the data they collect.”

Let’s be clear. Tesla is not the only company today that collects customer data for its own use. Many manufacturers consider the software installed in today’s automobiles belongs to them, not the owners. Drivers have only a license to use it at the discretion of the automaker. They are not allowed to access it or modify it in any way. As the digital age envelops us, we become ever more subservient to the machines that surround us. By allowing them into our lives, we voluntarily — or unwittingly — relinquish our privacy and some measure of control.

Is Tesla A Benevolent Dictatorship?

File this under editorial opinion if you like, but Tesla (and they are not alone) is really a benevolent dictatorship. If your car is damaged and is repaired by an unauthorized person, Tesla can disable it over the air without your permission unless and until you bring it — at your expense — to a Tesla service center to verify the repair work was done satisfactorily. Other than tires or wiper blades, every part of a Tesla is available only from the company.

You don’t own a Tesla so much as you share it with the company in a collaborative way. For instance, if you want to use your Tesla as a ride hailing or car sharing vehicle,  you are only allowed to do so through the proprietary Tesla Network, with Tesla getting a (small) piece of the action. If you leave your Tesla plugged in too long at a Supercharger location, you can be charged extra or have your charging privileges curtailed.

Elon Musk says Tesla will be building 500,000 cars a year by this time next year. Tesla buyers today are mostly wealthy people eager to be part of the Tesla revolution and enjoy the status that comes from driving the most innovative car since the Model T. The question is whether the mainstream drivers who buy all those Model 3 “affordable” sedans will be quite as willing to relinquish control of their data and driving experience to the company.

Source: The Guardian

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.