With just a few taps on the infotainment touchscreen, Buick drivers can reserve a table at a restaurant for up to 10 people. (Photo by Jeffrey Sauger for Buick)

Connected cars accelerate down data-collection highway

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — That holiday trip over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house could have turned into nice little gift for automakers as they increasingly collect oodles and oodles of data about the driver.

Automakers are collecting valuable pieces of information thanks to the internet connections, cameras and sensors built into most vehicles in recent years. The online access makes it possible for cars to be unlocked remotely if the keys are lost. It’s how safety features can be upgraded wirelessly and maintenance schedules adjusted based on performance.

But these digital peepholes are also offering a windshield-size view of people’s lives. That’s creating the potential for intrusive marketing pitches and government surveillance.

No serious incidents have occurred in the United States, Europe and Japan, but a red flag has already been raised in China, where automakers have been sharing location details of connected cars with the government.

“We are not that far away from when 100 percent of all new cars will come equipped with data modems,” Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid predicted. “Having the potential to collect more data about people in their cars means there is going to be potential for abuses, too.”

Here are some key questions about the auto industry’s acceleration down the data-collection highway:

So if you are driving a 2009 Toyota Corolla, you probably only have to worry about the tracking and data collection being done by the smartphone resting on the cup holder. But as those older models go to the scrapyard, it will become difficult to avoid a vehicle set up for gathering data that will be sent to automakers.

Drivers own the data stored in the “black boxes” that monitor vehicles in a crash. Police and insurers need a driver’s consent — or a court order — to get that data. But there are no laws addressing data collected by automakers through vehicle internet connections.

So far, few automakers will share their data in the United States without the owners’ consent, Abuelsamid said. Twenty companies — including GM, Toyota, Ford, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz — signed a voluntary agreement in 2014 to get permission before sharing a driver’s location, health or behavior with third parties. The agreement doesn’t require approval from drivers for data to be shared with emergency workers or for internal research.

One of the most notable exceptions is electric car maker Tesla Motors, which has released data publicly to reveal — sometimes within hours of a crash — how fast a driver was traveling and whether the company’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system was engaged after a collision.

As automakers collect more data about drivers, they’re more likely to look for ways to profit. The built-in display screens and mapping software would seem to be ideal spots for posting advertisements, similar to what Google, Facebook, Amazon and many other internet companies already do.

The business consultancy McKinsey has estimated automotive data could be worth $450 billion to $750 billion worldwide by 2030. Ford Motor CEO Jim Hackett may have foreshadowed what’s coming as he boasted in a recent interview about how much the automaker already knows about its customers who get their loans through its financial services division. All the lending information has allowed Ford to learn how much money people make, where they live and whether they are married.

“We’ve never ever been challenged on how we use that,” Hackett told a Freakonomics podcast last month.

— AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this story.