Hidden ears in the auto industry

Youngstown State University is a commuter college. According to Preliminary 14th Day Enrollment data from fall 2022, over 96% of YSU students commute to classes. 

Some of these commuters likely drive themselves to and from campus, pay car insurance and worry about hitting the curb at the corner of Lincoln and Wick Avenue quite often. 

But what if you hit that curb? No harm, no foul — except according to the New York Times, your car may be recording data about how you drive and selling that data to third-party companies — potentially your insurance providers. 

The NYT covered the story through a podcast called The Daily, and it said a large number of American drivers expressed they were unaware their cars had been collecting data.

Many drivers said they believed insurance rates spiked or that they had been denied auto coverage because of their “driving behavior.”

Kashmir Hill, the NYT reporter who began looking into the drivers’ statements, spoke on The Daily and said she initially was “only seeing people really explicitly complaining” about these insurance price hikes from General Motors consumers.

As she began digging more, Hill noticed numerous automakers are employing driving behavior monitoring they say is for “safety,” but Hill doesn’t believe that’s the case.

Data collection in a car can either be activated by an owner through an application or at a dealership. Hill said she believes these applications may have been quietly activated by dealership salespeople.

But why would salespeople turn on data collectors without a consumer’s knowledge? Turns out, GM offered employees bonuses if drivers enrolled in programs such as OnStar’s Smart Driver service, according to the NYT.

The service can connect any GM vehicle — be it a Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC or Buick — and track their driving behaviors the second a car’s ignition starts.

OnStar Smart Driver’s website states it’s “an optional service” that provides feedback on driving behavior and encourages “safer driving.”

The site further states, “Insights about driving behavior are only shared with an insurance carrier with your explicit consent. If you provide consent to your carrier, they can access the driver score associated with your vehicle’s driving behavior data to use the information for quoting purposes.”

While some drivers are concerned over insurance rates increasing anywhere from 20% to 50%, the question of how this “data tracking” promotes safety remains in the air.

Hill spoke with Christine Delta Ogden, who explained that her Mercedes was tracked by her late husband. Ogden had filed a restraining order and police report against him for domestic violence.

Despite protections in place, Ogden’s husband would repeatedly call and text her, claiming to know where she was and even showed up to her work trip.

Ogdens’ husband used a linkable application by Mercedes and registered it in his name to track the vehicle’s every movement.

While Ogden had judge-ordered car ownership, Mercedes allegedly refused to prevent him from using the location-sharing application.

Ogden had the car’s device that allowed internet functions completely removed. The only way she could ensure her safety was to prevent the car from sharing data with the app via the internet.

So, what is your car collecting information on you for?

If data collection is really about safety, wouldn’t these companies have respected Ogden’s fears? Instead, these data-tracking applications are in an uncomfortable ethical situation, if not a more serious predicament because of how these companies are determining safety.

If dealerships were activating features without a driver’s knowledge, the auto industry could be severely impacted as consumer trust could plunge — especially if there are more examples of a driver’s personal safety outside a car being placed at risk.