Is your car a tracking device? Do you think that somebody -- "the man," perhaps? -- is keeping an eye on your driving habits and tapping into your daily routine? Well, you'd be surprised how many motorists do. And as automakers and motorists wary of crashes and insurance claims increasingly turn to communication devices that log drivers' behaviors, many suggest that these systems can result in breaches of privacy. But just how far do these systems go in terms of tracking drivers? Are privacy concerns legitimate? We take a look. 

OnStar tracking

Motorists suspicious of tracking devices sometimes take a sideways view of systems such as OnStar, GM's real-time wireless communications hub that regulates vehicle security and diagnostics.

OnStar helps GM track a stolen vehicle or respond to an emergency like a tire blowout or air-bag deployment by way of an in-car monitoring system that records GPS data, odometer readings and diagnostics such as oil and tire pressure, and sends the information back to OnStar's control center. But can it track one of the company's 5.6 million subscriber's movements or route at any given time?

Jim Kobus, a communications manager at OnStar, says that the system cannot track any vehicle's location until a customer makes contact by his or her own volition (as the GPS feature required for location triangulation is not continually deployed) or the system detects a blowout or crash.

"We never know where any of our subscribers are until you initiate an interface with us by pressing either the blue or red button," Kobus said. "The only area where that would change is in the event you report the vehicle stolen. We make sure there's a valid police report and then we begin the process to track the vehicle.

"But generally [in that scenario] there's [evidence of] criminal intent and a court order or subpoena, and we follow the court order or subpoena."

At the request of law enforcement, OnStar can remotely slow down a vehicle or halt its operation.

Kobus says that OnStar is not connected to a car's "black box" -- its event data recorder -- adding that an OnStar operator would not contact a driver in the event that, say, their tires were dangerously low. 

"We would not know that your vehicle has a diagnostic trouble code; there is no trigger mechanism," Kobus said. "Maybe there are people out there who want that notification. Some subscribers get a vehicle-diagnostics report. We go through all the vehicle diagnostic checks and send it to you once a month."

Kubus also says that while OnStar may record conversations between a driver and OnStar operator held over the car's communications system, he can "categorically" rule out any recording of a private conversation by individuals when they haven't engaged the OnStar system. Strict rules also govern OnStar's use or dissemination of any driver information, but the company will turn over driver information to authorities under court order or subpoena.

Vehicle "black boxes"

Almost all new cars come with an event data recorder, which is an electronic device connected to a variety of sensors around the vehicle both inside and outside. It can tell if a driver is wearing a seatbelt, or if the oil pressure is low, and in the event of a crash it will send a signal instructing the car's airbags to deploy. It also tracks the car's acceleration or deceleration and its speed in the seconds before a crash occurs. Such information is vital to crash investigators and commonly is used by insurance companies to determine who's at fault in a wreck.

But can it track a driver's every-day movements? GM spokesman Alan Adler explains that all GM vehicles produced since 1998 have event data recorders and that some models were fitted with the recorders from the late 1970s. The devices work by continuously collecting data, but the most recent data are continually overwriting previously stored information. In the event of a crash, the data cycle is "frozen," allowing a snapshot of the most recent data to be recorded. Insurance investigators or law enforcement officers can then retrieve that information electronically.

"We [GM] don't do anything with that data ourselves," Adler said. "It's called a black box as it's a self-contained unit, but it doesn't do the same thing as an airplane's. In the case of a crash, it doesn't say where you were, or which street you were on. It records only certain pieces of data; it's a tool in reconstructing crashes."

Adler explains that drivers have little choice but to drive with the system intact. "To get rid of the system then you have to get rid of airbags, and it's illegal to drive without airbags."

Store-bought "black box"

How about a system that tracks your route and speed and records everything you do by way of video up front and sensors mounted in the back, front and rear of the car? Sounds pretty scary, huh?

KCI Communications offers its "Black Box" product to motorists who it says want to give themselves the best possible chance of defending themselves in the event of a crash and resulting insurance claim. The device uses GPS to give a driver's exact vehicle speed, direction and position at the time of impact, as well as recording the incident with high-resolution video mounted on or above the dash.

The trick here is that none of the customer's data are uploaded or stored by the company -- all information, or 167 hours worth of driving time, remains on a 32-gig memory card similar to those found in digital cameras. A consumer simply plugs the card into their own computer to analyze results. All information on the card is overwritten once the recordings start over.

Chris Pflanz, KCI's director of marketing, says: "You cannot remotely keep an eye on drivers. We stream live video and our main expertise is police video. GPS is not used for live tracking or any type of navigation; it is strictly for data and reconstruction of accidents. Once we sell a product we have no access to the data."
Tracking teen or elderly drivers

Family members concerned about a teen or elderly driver may want to buy what seems like the ultimate tracking device: a real-time alert system that monitors a car's route and notifies both the driver and external viewer in the event of a speeding offense or if the driver has left a pre-determined area, like breaching a city's limits (known as geo-sensing).

Inthinc's Tiwi system is backed by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, which says the device results in safer teen driving habits. The company also offers two more advanced models for fleet or commercial use.

Josh Huber at Inthinc explains that the device "monitors the speed of the car and  also aggressive driving, accelerating or braking too hard, and whether the seatbelt is on. If the driver is going above the limit it will alert the driver.

"The notifications are automatically put on a database on our website and a parent can access that database or have it sent by alerts on their phone."

Jeff Harvey, also at Inthinc, says the company's primary goal is safer driving.

"[The device] talks back to the driver and gives them advice on how they're operating the vehicle," Harvey said. "That data goes back to a database and is stored for different periods of time. All of the data that is personal in nature is stored for the shortest amount of time. That data is accessible to parents through the [online] portal, which is password protected, and the data in our servers is protected. It's accessible only to the owner of the vehicle."

He says the information collected about a driver's habits is used to calculate a score, or grade, which is an algorithm based on the number of violations over a number of miles, and the severity of the violations. That score, Harvey says, is kept for up to a year, but again is only accessible to the owner of the vehicle, who can choose to share that information with insurance companies should they choose.
"We just store the score itself," Harvey said. "You wouldn't be able to drill down into the events that make up that score. They are purged out over an appropriate area of time."

Harvey adds that in the event of a stolen vehicle, the owner can log onto Inthinc's website and see where their car is, and can work independently with police for its recovery.

The future is not bleak, but it is highly connected. The way in which you interact with your vehicle will become more complex in the years to come and the relationship between you and manufacturer of your vehicle is likely to be built on something more than just car payments going forward.

Read More:

- Cops in the Sky!
- Should Cars Have Built-In Breathalyzers?
- Speed Cameras Coming Soon to a Freeway Near You?

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