A Google driverless car drives on a test course (Credit... A Google driverless car drives on a test course (Credit: jurvetson, Flickr).
First there was the horseless carriage. Next comes the driverless car.

The advent of an autonomous vehicle is welcomed by many, but privacy advocates worry that recent state laws passed to accelerate their arrival overlooks something the vehicles carry besides people – data.

On Thursday, a bill that allows driverless cars on California roadways heads to the state's assembly appropriations committee and could soon be ready for Gov. Jerry Brown's signature. It has already passed the state senate. But a consumer's group is urging Brown to veto the bill, SB 1298, because it doesn't stipulate how Google – or other future driverless car manufacturers, for that matter – could collect customer data from the vehicle, or how it might be distributed to other parties.

In regard to customer privacy, the bill is "completely insufficient," writes John M. Simpson, director of the Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project. "It gives the user no control over what data will be gathered and how the information will be used."

Consumer Watchdog wants the bill to include a provision that mandates customers must explicitly give consent for any data collected by the cars and for how it could be used to gear advertising toward particular customers.

"Consumers enthusiastically adopted the new technology of the internet," Simpson said. "What we were not told was that our use of the information superhighway would be monitored and tracked in order to personalize corporate marketing and make Google a fortune. Now that Google is taking to the freeways, we must prevent inappropriate collection and storage of data about our personal movements and environment."

The bill itself authorizes the use of driverless cars on California roads and allows the state's Division of Motor Vehicles to create standards for the cars. It does not attempt to legislate how private data might be handled. It's nonetheless an important issue for automakers to monitor because California laws often become de facto standards that they follow nationwide.

For its part, Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., praised state lawmakers for their foresight in legislating for the arrival of driverless cars, but did not specifically address concerns raised by the consumer group. The technology behind driverless cars is in its infancy – with no motorists purchasing or operating autonomous vehicles, so it may be premature to say how a company could mine data, if it was gathered in the first place.

"Self-driving cars have the potential to significantly increase driving safety," the statement said. "We applaud ... the California legislature for building a thoughtful framework to enable safe, ongoing testing of the technology and to anticipate the needs and best interests of California citizens who may own vehicles with self-driving capabilities one day."

Consumer Watchdog has been a consistent critic of the search-engine behemoth. Last month, it opposed a $22.5 million settlement between Google and the Federal Trade Commission. In June, the not-for-profit organization had mimes trail Google shareholders at an annual meeting to jab at the company's data tracking.

Part of the organization's mission is to keep a careful eye on Google's privacy practices. It received a $100,000 grant from the Rose Foundation in August 2008 specifically to monitor the company and how it shares user data.

If Brown signs the bill, which is expected, California would become the third state to enact a law that prepares for the arrival of driverless cars. Nevada and Florida became the first and second, respectively, earlier this year.

While there's no imminent arrival of driverless cars for mainstream use, the auto industry is warming to their development, says the San Jose Mercury News. Two weeks ago, the newspaper reported that GM believes semi-autonomous vehicles will be available by the middle of the decade and "sophisticated" self-driving systems by 2025.

Earlier this year, Google said its driverless cars had completed about 300,000 miles of testing without an accident. The average U.S. driver has one accident every 165,000 miles, according to Mashable, which examined Federal Highway Administration and insurance data.


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