Your Car Is Spying on You and Congress Isn't Sure What to Do About It

Cars are finally talking to drivers—piping up with directions and making every person in a new vehicle feel at least a little bit like David Hasselhoff in the 1980s.

Now lawmakers are starting to explore the privacy and tax implications of smart cars. In short, your car may talk to you, but legislative policy that gets hammered out in the near future will craft how much it talks about you—to automakers, marketing companies, the government, and others.

For years, people have been leery of their smartphones tracking them and selling their personal information, but sentient cars largely went unnoticed until recently. The Government Accountability Office released a report (PDF) in December that concluded that consumers aren’t aware of the privacy risks posed by their cars’ software. Shortly after, at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Jim Farley, Ford’s marketing chief, put a finer point on it: “We know everyone who breaks the law; we know when you’re doing it.” More recently, Ford drew attention with its new patent to serve up targeted in-car advertisements based on GPS coordinates, according to the Detroit News.

In short, it’s just you, the open road, and a sky full of spooky satellites eager to route you to the nearest Taco Bell.

Not surprisingly, privacy advocates in Congress say cars are getting a little too smart. Minnesota Senator Al Franken promised to reintroduce legislation this year that would, among other things, require companies to get permission before collecting tracking data. “Our privacy laws haven’t kept pace with these enormous advances,” Franken said in a statement last month.

Even Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally says the government needs to draw some formal guidelines about what information car companies can collect, how they collect it, and how they use it.

And then there’s the potential to link onboard computers with taxes. Oregon has a controversial new plan to tax drivers based on miles driven, instead of gallons or gas purchased. The program starts next year with 5,000 volunteers who will pay 1.5 cents per mile driven, rather than the state’s gas levy of 30 cents per gallon. It’s not a bad deal for drivers, provided their vehicles get less than 20 miles per gallon.

Earlier this month, Representative Bill Shuster from Pennsylvania said he would push for a similar proposal at the federal level to pay for highway construction and repair. The federal gas tax—18.5 cents per gallon—has not been raised in two decades, which presents a challenge for agencies looking to shore up crumbling bridges and interstates.

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