Motorists sit in a traffic jam this month near Annebault, in northwestern France, their cars collecting data on their movements all the while. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

The debate over privacy can leave consumers feeling torn between two bad options: disengage with the virtual world and maintain our anonymity or engage with the Internet and put our identity, finances, safety and perhaps even our democracy at risk.

John Ellis, an auto futurist and formerly global technologist for Ford Motor Co., thinks we may have overlooked a third option.

In his book, “The Zero Dollar Car,” he argues that consumers should start thinking about their privacy as a product. Instead of concealing our private data, he argues, we should be able to sell it to companies, using the profits to lower the price of goods and services that feed off the information we produce.

Ellis thinks the best way to start is with the modern car, a machine that has been transformed from a means of transportation into a sophisticated computer on wheels that offers even more access to our personal habits and behaviors than smartphones do.

Today’s vehicles, experts say, can determine where you shop, the weather on your street, how often you wear your seat belt, what you were doing moments before a crash — even where you like to eat and how much you weigh.

If car companies are going to harvest such valuable information, Ellis asks, shouldn’t they pay for it? We spoke with Ellis to find out more about how companies are using our data and why trading that data for money could drastically reduce the price of cars, appliances and other technology. The Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

Q: The average new car costs more than $33,000. If we were able to sell our data to car companies, how much do you realistically think the price of cars might drop? Is zero dollars a real possibility?

In my book I show how the lifetime value of vehicle data is in the thousands of dollars. For a combustion engine car, it may be the case that we never get to zero dollars. But so what? Taking the price of a vehicle from $33,000 to maybe $20,000 is still a worthwhile discussion and exercise.

But what about when you don’t buy the vehicle and instead buy a seat? As in with Uber or Lyft. What if the value of your data was such that a particular ride could be subsidized to the point where the ride was zero dollars? That is definitely possible and more than likely.

And when the vehicle is autonomous? Imagine you are a Starbucks customer. You order a coffee from home and the coffee is brought to you in a car and you are given a ride to work with the coffee. The cost of the ride is zero dollars (because of your loyalty). That is a future that is more likely than not and one we have to be concerned with today if we want to get data and privacy policies “right.”

Q: One of the radical ideas you also propose is the notion that we should start thinking about our privacy as a product. To treat privacy any differently, you argue, defies human nature. What do you mean by the idea that our privacy has become a product?

Imagine if, when offered the opportunity to take the zero-dollar pricing, we said: “No, thank you. I want to pay full price.” Why might someone do that? By saying no, we explicitly state that our data is not for sale. We in essence are purchasing privacy. That is to say, we enter into a product contract for privacy.

Now imagine that we extend this to any of the products that are offered for zero dollars. What if they were also offered in a full-price version? Consumers who choose the full-price offer would be buying privacy. Privacy as a product.

A perfect example of this is Facebook. When I wrote the book in 2017, the concepts I put forth were prescient. Mark Zuckerberg recently admitted that if Facebook users wanted to keep their personal data private, Facebook could charge them to use the social network. If you don’t want privacy, you can continue using Facebook for zero dollars.

Q: One of my favorite moments from your Ted Talk is this hypothetical in which a car buyer is offered the chance to sell six sensors — GPS, rain, windshield wiper, headlights status, traction control and barometer — to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Why would NOAA, a municipality or even a company want to give me cash for my vehicle’s windshield-wiper sensor?


Well, NOAA is a scientific agency with the U.S. Department of Commerce that monitors the weather, including the prediction of serious storms like hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards.

If given access to vehicle data such as the six sensors you mentioned, NOAA would have accurate, up-to-the-minute weather reports from all the vehicles in every region of the country. Rather than seek federal funding to build another weather station, why not purchase the data from cars?

With the growth of vehicle sensors creating all kinds of data, tech companies understand that everything — from incoming messages and intelligence gathered by what drivers are saying on their in-car microphones to weather, the routes being taken and road conditions — could be sold to, for example, corporations and public utilities.

And to a technology company like Google, which can harvest, analyze and process data, these sensors, when combined with location, intentions and preferences, are incredibly valuable. This explains why Google has the automotive strategy it does.

Q: So, there are more than 100 sensors in a modern car that generate significant amounts of data. Should drivers be worried about the information these sensors are vacuuming up?

All the sensors in a modern car are there because of the careful consideration of the automotive engineers who want to improve the safety of the vehicle, manage vehicle emissions and deliver passengers. At no time were they trying to figure out how to monetize the sensor data. But there are others who really want that data. Technology companies have rushed to get into the car and access your data. The car, in effect, is more relevant to technology companies than the smartphone is.

Q: We know that data from our cars is as valuable as, if not more valuable than, data from smartphones. What are some examples of how tech companies are using cars as a conduit to customers?

Google and Apple created Android Auto and Apple CarPlay with the intention of extending their services into the car, and in exchange they get data on the music you like to play, your behaviors and preferences while commuting or on a road trip, voice data and location data that helps to triangulate a seemingly infinite number of insights about you to sell back to advertisers to serve up ads at precisely the appropriate moment.

The car is interesting because you’re inside it; your use of the car confirms specific behaviors and preferences. Car sensors generate data that can reveal your location, movement, destination, stores you visit, speed you travel, routes you take, people you meet. This is all incredibly valuable data to companies that buy and sell ads. Having access to this data is important to Google as it differentiates itself from other companies by helping advertisers deliver the right ad, to the right person, at the right time.

Outside of Google and Apple, you have technology companies such as Voyomotive, Mojio and ZenDrive developing solutions for accessing the available rich vehicle data and then building solutions related to insurance, advertising and vehicle ownership and maintenance.

Q: Is anyone regulating Google’s data collection in vehicles? 

The rules around data collection and use are changing. Companies in Europe must follow the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, and disclose in simple terms how companies are using personal data and give Europeans the right to be forgotten by deleting all their data online.

In May, voters in California succeeded through petition in getting the California Consumer Privacy Act on the ballot in November — a measure that would allow Californians to see what data about them is being collected, give them the right to stop companies from selling their data, and hold companies accountable for data breaches.

It should be noted that this is not just about Google. The 2017 Equifax breach showed more than 143 million people just how much data is being collected and moreover, how little — if any — say we have in that process.

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