Self-driving cars have the potential to drastically reduce the number of lives lost to traffic accidents, cut fuel consumption and vehicle emissions, and even alleviate frustration from sitting in traffic or looking for parking. Of course, automakers and others aren't pouring billions into developing the technology purely for altruistic reasons.

Google's self-driving division Waymo states on its website that it's "working to make our roads safer, free up people's time, and improve mobility for everyone." But considering that the tech giant mints money ($24.6 billion on search-ad revenue last year) by leveraging user data, Google's autonomous car goals conveniently align with the company's business model as much as it does with its values.

So just follow the money and it's easy to see that it's the promise of autonomous vehicles generating tons of data — and revenue — that's largely fueling these investments. A recent study conducted by Strategy Analytics for Intel estimates that the "Passenger Economy" created by the advent of autonomous vehicles will swell from $800 billion in 2035 to a whopping to $7 trillion by 2050, driven by services such as robo-taxis, automated delivery of everything from pizzas to prescription drugs, and captive marketing to idle car occupants.

Car companies and automotive suppliers are staking large claims in the gold rush to mine data resources from connected and autonomous vehicles. Last week, Toyota, Intel and other technology and auto companies announced the formation of a consortium to create an ecosystem for connected car data, while in May mega supplier Delphi revealed that it's spinning off its $4.5 billion powertrain division to focus on creating an entire ecosystem to monetize vehicle data.

One of the big questions in this brave new world of turning bits and bytes from vehicles into earnings is who owns the data. Ask almost any automaker, and the answer is the same.

In an email response, GM said, "In our philosophy, the customer owns the data and needs to opt-in to our terms and conditions, which clarify any form of use of the data before we can do anything with it." Toyota replied, "Customers do. We have a mechanism for them to opt-out if desired. If they choose to go that route, then we won't use it." Ford sent this official statement: "We are stewards of data customers chose to provide us, and we are committed to protecting it."

"Car companies say the customer owns the data," noted Roger Lanctot, associate director of Strategy Analytics' Global Automotive Practice. "But the question is how do they get access to it." The answer is they really don't — it would be like accessing your Google search data — although car owners can choose whether they want to share it.

Ford said that "customers opt in by activating SYNC Connect (our embedded modem) through a 2-step verification process." A GM spokesperson replied, "When we onboard people to our services, they go through a full process where they can opt-in to different features and the terms and conditions. It is either an online process or via conversation with the advisors and the latter documents are sent to the customer for opt-in and signature."

So you're probably giving automakers your car's data without even realizing it when using certain services, and you may not even care. This approach of knowingly or unknowingly giving away personal data isn't unprecedented and in fact is rampant in the tech world — and highly profitable as well as mutually beneficial.

All those pictures and posts to Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp may make friends and family feel envious or more connected, but they also earned Mark Zuckerberg's social media empire advertising revenue of $7.9 billion in the second quarter of this year alone. And I'd bet most people reading this column for "free" aren't familiar with AOL's privacy policy and the information collected and how it's used.

So while automakers say you own your car's data — and you'll likely get more benefit in the future from sharing it — you have as much influence over how it's used as you do with Google, Facebook or AOL. And you'll profit from it just as much too.

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