Might drivers someday need to log into their vehicles instead of just unlocking and starting them?
Such a day may be drawing closer as vehicles begin to collect enough information to raise the privacy and data security concerns that have long existed with computers.
As these concerns escalate in the U.S. and Europe, automakers are wondering whether it would make sense to tie dashboard data to individual users rather than making them accessible to anyone who hops into the vehicle.
"When it comes to the data in the car, we as an industry have to learn that today the data is related to the car," Ralf Lamberti, director of user interaction and connected car at Daimler AG, said at an industry conference in Brussels. "And if you give your car to somebody else, he might see your phone book. He might see your last destinations."
One illustration of the risks shows up in The Ghost Writer, the 2010 political thriller directed by Roman Polanski. When the protagonist, played by Ewan McGregor, climbs into a BMW X5 that had been driven by a deceased character from the film, he stumbles upon a set of coordinates that had been entered into the navigation system. Following this trail of digital bread crumbs, he unravels an international conspiracy.
Daimler thinks that perhaps he shouldn't be able to get those coordinates.
"In the future, we have to tie and relate the data to the respective user at a certain point, so we have to have different user profiles," Lamberti said. "We should be able to distinguish the users, and then the data are with the user and not with the car."
But this creates additional legal problems regarding which data are collected, for what purposes and with whom they are shared. Car companies also would need to ensure that the information is properly communicated to users, so customers can make informed choices when granting consent.
Monika Kuschewsky, special counsel at the law firm Covington & Burling, said gaining consent is neither simple nor straightforward for the auto industry. A car is not like a mobile phone that is used by one individual.
"How do you make sure you have the consent of the right person, not only of the driver but also of the passenger?" she asked. "And then, how often do you ask for consent? Every time you start your engine, do you have to click through your onboard system to consent to 20 different things?"
Executives such as Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields have repeatedly asserted that ownership of vehicle data lies with the driver. They seek to draw a line between the auto industry and companies such as Google and Facebook, which systematically mine their customers' data to serve up advertisements.
Though there are examples of useful data mining -- for example, Amazon and Netflix analyzing customer preferences to make recommendations -- car companies would need to be wary about using users' information in a way that irks their customers.
"What is absolutely clear is that an OEM has a duty of care when there is data being transferred from a vehicle that it is done with the consent of that vehicle's user/owner," said Mike Bell, global connected-car director at Jaguar Land Rover. "We can't be doing things where there is data being taken without that level of consent, and people need to understand that."