Safety Benefits and Privacy Concerns of Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communication

Personal motor vehicles are used every day by millions of Americans and are so integrated into daily living that many people take for granted the dangers inherent in driving. Safety features have continuously advanced over the past century, and the movement towards using vehicle-to-vehicle (“V2V”) communication offers safety benefits that could not have been imagined even 15 years ago. The newest technologies simultaneously offer astounding safety benefits and raise privacy and other legal concerns.

Innovations in vehicle safety have come about for obvious reasons, namely to decrease the injuries and deaths caused by motor vehicles. Motor vehicle crashes caused, on average, over 36,000 deaths per year in the United States between 1994 and 2012. Some 2.3 million adult drivers and passengers received treatment in hospital emergency departments in 2009 alone. Over the life of the automobile countless safety features, such as seat belts and airbags, have been added to vehicles, vastly improving the chance of surviving a car accident. It is estimated that wearing a seat belt in an airbag-equipped vehicle reduces the chance of death by sixty-one percent.

With the advancement of computers, safety features in vehicles have transitioned from minimizing injury during an accident (passive safety) to preventing and avoiding accidents altogether (active safety) and ensuring quick emergency response after an accident via automatic crash response systems. Features such as adaptive cruise control, backup cameras, autonomous braking, and various sensors are commonplace on new vehicles. V2V communication offers the possibility of cars and roads that are in “constant, harmonious communication” to alert drivers to a vehicle several cars ahead braking suddenly or to the presence of black ice on the roadway or to a car running a red light.

In August 2014 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) released a report (“Readiness Report”) that assesses the readiness of V2V communication for application. The report describes V2V communication as “a system designed to transmit basic safety information between vehicles to facilitate warnings to drivers concerning impending crashes.” V2V communication has the potential to push us into a “new era of road safety.” However, as V2V communication develops and allows vehicles to communicate with one another, questions about privacy and scope inevitably arise.

Some of the privacy concerns that arise relate to the data gleaned from the V2V communications systems. Vehicles communicate with one another using wireless transmitters, and these transmitters will have the ability to transmit a vehicle’s speed and location.Is this data stored, manipulated, or otherwise used outside of the safety functions of the V2V communication technology? The fact that these V2V transmitters have the ability to transmit a vehicle’s location and other data raises serious concerns about GPS tracking of vehicles. In its Readiness Report, the NHTSA acknowledges the various privacy and other legal issues that must be addressed when implementing V2V communication technologies, including ensuring driver anonymity, preventing hackers from accessing the systems, and preventing location tracking.

Another concern relates to the scope of V2V and similar technologies. How many other ways may this technology legally be used? How integrated will this technology become, and at what cost to consumers’ privacy and choices? Can this technology be used in unintended ways that will invade a person’s privacy? For example, AT&T holds a patent that discloses a system to remotely access cameras installed on the outside of vehicles to assess the vehicle’s surroundings. Potential applications include activating the cameras on cars in a specific geographic location to assess a car accident or record a potentially dangerous situation in real-time. One can easily imagine the technology in the AT&T patent being used by authorities to determine a person’s location or being misused by clever hackers to gain access to a person’s vehicle systems.

Though V2V communication technologies offer incredible benefits, including the potential to prevent half a million car crashes each year, there are significant concerns related to individual privacy and the scope of the technology

that must be addressed in order for this technology to gain acceptance with consumers and the auto industry. V2V communication technologies must be implemented in a way that both protects privacy and ensures the technology is used primarily for accident prevention.