Driverless cars: we should question and challenge Google, but not as haters

There are two common responses to reports about Google’s work on self-driving cars, the latest of which concerns the company’s desire to have them available to buy within the next three years.

One response: “Woo! Yay! Driverless cars! At last reality is catching up with science fiction! I’ll soon be spending my commute nailing inbox zero / finally finishing that Donna Tartt book / sticking my head out of the window, tongue flapping like an excitable labrador! Google moonshots FTW!”

The other response: “Those EVIL bastards Google have found a new way to be evil! There’ll be ads on the dashboard and your exhaust pipe will be a direct line to the NSA! Let’s grab the flaming pitchforks and set fire to all the prototypes before it’s TOO LATE!”

It’s tempting to say that anything Google does generates these kinds of polarised views, but that would ignore the fact that these are extremes.

Most people sit vaguely in the middle: happily using Gmail and Google Maps and Android smartphones, while occasionally worrying about issues like digital tracking, data security, government surveillance, copyright legislation and tax avoidance as and when they’re in the news.

Not Google evangelists nor Google haters: more Google agnostics. And while this group’s voices may not be heard loudest in the debate about driverless cars, they may be best placed to ask the challenging and necessary questions about this and other new technologies coming out of the company.

I say “they”. It’s more like “we” because I count myself in the Google agnostics category too, albeit as a technology journalist who spends a lot of time thinking (and writing) about some of these issues.

The first thing to say is that driverless cars aren’t just a Google thing. Pretty much every automotive firm is working hard on what some prefer to call “driver-assisted” or “piloted driving” technology: BMW, Audi, Volvo, Hyundai, Nissan, Ford… The list goes on.

The sensors and technology required for all these vehicles will create masses of data on where we go and how we drive. That data will be collected by the makers of these cars, and – if we don’t ask the right questions – we won’t have much idea of how they’re using that data.

Why be more wary of Google, then? The obvious answer is that it’s the only one of these companies with a business model based on advertising rather than on selling things on wheels made out of metal, plastic, leather, paint and glass. And whatever it is that fluffy dice are made out of.

Google doesn’t make fluffy dice: it sells our eyeballs. But we should be asking Google the same questions as all the other manufacturers moving towards a self-driving future. What data are you collecting? How long are you storing it for? Who are you sharing it with? How can I access that data? And why should I trust you?

Isolating one company or technology is missing the bigger picture, too. If we’re worried about being tracked as we move around our cities, we should be taking as keen an interest in numberplate recognition and CCTV and facial recognition and credit-card cross-referencing and other technologies.

Go too far down the paranoia rabbit-hole on that, and you’ll end up only leaving the house at night, clad in surveillance-repelling clothing and flitting from rooftop to rooftop like a binbag-and-tinfoil clad ninja. That would be no help at all.

(Even if it would be fun for a couple of nights.)

Questions about our data aren’t just for Google, nor are they just about cars: they’re as relevant to smartphones, smart TVs, smart watches, tablets, augmented eyewear, fitness trackers, consumer drones, smart thermostats and smoke alarms.

Google is involved (or getting involved) with every single one of those product categories, and more, so we should be challenging and questioning the company regularly, just as we should be Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon.

“We” is us: the people who’ll be using all these products and services. But it’s also we technology journalists – some of whom have been firmly and persistently asking these questions for their entire careers, but others (I’m in this category) who’ve been given a timely wakeup call by the last year’s NSA revelations to think harder about data privacy and security issues.

Oh, and “we” as in our elected representatives: the people we vote into power who’ll be making the laws governing these technologies and who should be holding the companies behind them to account. How would your MP set about casting a vote based on the complex technology and equally complex privacy issues around driverless cars, for example?

There’s an important role for evangelists in all this: getting excited about new technology, adopting it early, and explaining its potential benefits to everyone else.

There’s also an important role for haters: approach everything with the “Why is this person lying to me?” strategy – NOT coined by Jeremy Paxman, as it turns out, but by another journalist called Louis Heren – and sometimes you’ll find out that yes, they really are lying.

But agnostics have a reason to speak up too, participating in the debate about driverless cars and other emerging technologies while they’re still emerging, rather than leaving it just to the tongue-flappers and tinfoil-ninjas.

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