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James Baggott: Big Brother isn’t on his way – he’s already here and knows all about you

Time 10:00 am, November 1, 2017

OVER the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time hearing about new cars and new technology. The strides manufacturers are making right now – from electrification to connectivity – are absolutely huge. Every time I’m lucky enough to be flown out somewhere hot to try out the very latest offerings, I always return staggered at just how innovative and exciting the car industry is.

Earlier this month, I was in Portugal with BMW, driving the firm’s new 6 Series Gran Turismo and X3 models. Say what you want about the looks of the former, or the relative blandness of the latter, you won’t be able to deny that the technology inside both is a dramatic leap forward.

Take the entertainment system – something that every buyer will interact with more than anything else in their new car. BMW’s iDrive set-up used to get a huge amount of flak, but now it’s never been easier to control. You can wave your finger in a circle in front of the screen to turn the music up and down, ask it to change station, press the images on the touchscreen – and if all that fails, use the iDrive control next to the gear stick.

The things it does are incredible, too. It offers live weather updates, can guide you around traffic jams or find you a parking space in a city. A BMW app syncs with your car and calendar and plots a route for you to your next meeting. It’ll let you know how long it’ll take to get there with current traffic conditions and, by working out how much fuel you have in the tank and how much you’ll need, tell you where to stop on the way to top up.

There’s even the option to send live updates of your trip to your friends, family, or whoever it is you’re heading to a meeting with. They’ll be sent a link by your car to a webpage that will give them your current position, updated in real time, your estimated time of arrival and more. It’s perfect for proving to your better half that you really are on the way to pick them up and not in the pub, or to tell your boss you really are stuck in traffic on the M25.

Connectivity, artificial intelligence and clever algorithms will dominate our automotive future. Manufacturers are working incredibly hard on making the way we interact with our cars as easy as possible – and the more second-guessing our vehicles can do for us, the better. Well, that’s at least what the manufacturers I’ve been chatting to would have you believe.

Me? Well, I’m not so sure. I love new technology, especially when it makes my life simpler and more efficient. However, I’m still concerned about just how much I’m prepared to share with a conglomerate data gatherer. Let’s take my iPhone as an example. I’m already worried just how much it knows about me – and how it can predict what I’m going to do, or need. It knows that if I get up
early on a Sunday (my alarm is set), leave the house (maps) and get in my car (Bluetooth) that the likelihood is I’m on duty at the lifeboat station – so it’ll give me an ETA at Lifeboat Lane. That’s scary – it’s nearly always right, and proves that my life is incredibly predictable.

My phone knows where I shop thanks to maps and Apple Pay, and it knows when I like to have a coffee – and how often I drink one. It knows when I shop for food, where, and how much I spend on each visit. It knows when I’m in the pub or buying fuel.

And that’s just my iPhone. Throw in the odd social media app and Google – plus the fact my desktop Mac at work, laptop and
phone are all synced – and the data held on everything I do grows exponentially. Now ‘they’ know what I’m researching to buy online, what I’m writing a story about, what videos I’m watching. They know who I talk to and when, how often I travel, and when I’m most productive at work.

And that’s before any deep dive into the data has been carried out. Google knows what brands I like, how much I’m likely to spend on hotel rooms and holidays, and what sort of cars I want next. Add in favourites on Twitter, likes on Instagram and it knows even more about the brands and things I want to see more of. Already the news feed has worked out I’m most interested in car stories – as it keeps feeding me those in notifications, – and the more I use the phone, the apps and Google, the more they learn. I don’t use Facebook, but I read that its predictions are so strong it knows when you’re going to get married before you do, thanks to the interactions you make online.

OK, so sifting through the data to help serve me the right things can be useful. I don’t mind being told where the nearest Starbucks is when I want a coffee, or being given a rough idea of my ETA at a business meeting when I get in the car. However, I do worry about the predictions it will make in the future, what will be done with the data, and by whom.

I can just about accept sharing my data with Google and Apple – they’re sort of unavoidable – but if car manufacturers start harvesting that data too, well, then I’m not so sure. Granted there are huge benefits of this information to car makers and dealers; however, society needs to be very careful just how far we let algorithms map out our lives. Big Brother isn’t coming, he’s already here – all we need to learn now is how to get along.

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James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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