Do minivan buyers take more freeways than side streets? Where do SUV buyers go on weekends — the shopping mall or the soccer field?
Such information may be available to automotive and other marketers through Hughes Telematics Inc.'s services if — and this is a big if — customers choose to take part in a vehicle tracking service.
Using location-based and two-way satellite communication, Hughes Telematics will be able to record specific places where participating customers go in their vehicles. And marketers can gain insights into the lifestyles of different vehicle buyers. That will let marketers reach those drivers with specific messages and in targeted media.
The concept is similar to cookies, those codes hidden inside computers that track which sites are visited and how often.
Today, Google's gmail service customizes ads based on the content of the e-mail you're reading. In a few years, these vehicle tracking services could know that you are parking at the end of Westgate Mall closest to the book store and alert you to a sale on CDs there.
Hughes, concerned about privacy issues, doesn't expect to collect and sell the data at will. Car buyers will have to agree in advance to have their movements tracked.
Eager to get the data, though, it is thinking up ways to make participation more attractive to vehicle owners.
Erik Goldman, Hughes Telematics' president, says consumers who agree to participate would be offered compensation in the form of discounts at a store or eatery that they frequent. This would follow the model that airlines use when they offer frequent flier points in exchange for data on travel habits.
"Certainly, if I want to be in some kind of affinity group, like the Starbucks club or the Macy's group, where I'm getting frequent points and building up credits toward my next vacation by sharing my driving behavior, those things are possible," Goldman says.
But some believe tracking consumers could backfire.
Research shows that tracking is "not only an unattractive proposition to consumers but that it will make the vehicles that those services are attached to less attractive to consumers as well," says Chet Huber, president of General Motors' OnStar telematics unit.
"You can casually talk about tracking vehicles and finding out whether minivan drivers drive to Wal-Mart, but there is more to it than that," he says. "My guess is that over time that will become clearer to those folks who will become the new entrants in this market."