Self-driving cars: No hands, no privacy?

Driverless cars are a hot topic. Google recently gave the media rides in the self-driving cars the company has been testing, then unveiled its own cuddly, steering wheel-free and pedal-challenged robocars last week. People are getting excited about the possibilities. For example, Larry Magid writes for the Mercury News about the advantages self-driving cars could bring, including improved efficiency for the busy, and independence for those who can’t drive. But as the excitement builds, so do the concerns — and a top concern is privacy.

“If we don’t pay attention to how they are developed now, driverless cars won’t be a symbol of individual freedom as much as another way in which we’ll have given into the surveillance state,” writes Dan Gillmor for the Guardian.

Camille Francois, a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, writes for Wired that self-driving cars that can track our physical whereabouts might be the thing that finally pushes people to care about pervasive surveillance. (Although she uses her grandmother, a person who doesn’t own a smartphone and doesn’t live an always-connected life, as an example.) Still, Francois says “self-driving cars are one place we can start to get it right,” echoing Gillmor’s sentiment above — that we need to get in front of the privacy issues as autonomous cars start to hit the roadways, not after they’re zipping along on our freeways and streets.

But as we wrote recently, it took a while for California to come up with rules for testing self-driving cars that addressed safety and liability issues. Because privacy concerns might be even thornier, establishing related rules and accepted practices could take even longer.


Above, an artistic rendering of Google’s self-driving car (Google via Associated Press)

Levi Sumagaysay Levi Sumagaysay (4265 Posts)

Levi Sumagaysay is editor of the combined SiliconBeat and Good Morning Silicon Valley. She also helps take care of, the Mercury News tech website. Email: