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May 24, 2022Episode 33. Cars Can Track Our Driving Habits: Who owns that data, and what’s being done with it?
FEATURING: Shawn Turner
The newest cars on the road today generate huge amounts of data, telling us much about our driving habits and helping us build and operate our roadways. How safely and efficiently we travel in the future will depend in part on how wisely stakeholders use that data.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Engineer
Shawn Turner is a senior research engineer at TTI, where he has developed, conducted, and managed applied research for 29 years. Shawn is a nationally recognized expert with practical experience in multimodal travel data collection and analysis, performance measures and monitoring, and mobility analysis. He’s pioneered using private-sector GPS probe traffic data for mobility and reliability performance monitoring. Shawn works with FHWA, state, and local agencies to advance the use of best available and high-quality data in planning, performance management, and traffic monitoring.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello and welcome. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The newest cars on the road today — those referred to as connected vehicles — generate data at staggering rates. At least 25 gigabytes an hour. And that number is growing. Auto engineers and other professionals today have access to information that was out of reach only a few years ago. That includes knowledge about the car’s performance, and the driver’s performance, too. We’ve reached a point now where collecting that data is the easy part. Figuring out exactly what to do with it is another matter. Our guest today has some thoughts on that. Shawn Turner is a senior research engineer at TTI, where he works to advance the use of high-quality data to support transportation planning, performance management, and traffic monitoring. Welcome, Shawn.
Shawn Turner (guest) (01:21):
Thank you. Happy to be here. Happy to talk about data.
Bernie Fette (01:25):
And data as it relates to our driver behavior, right?
Shawn Turner (01:30):
Bernie Fette (01:32):
Yeah. So it doesn’t seem all that long ago on that point that if we chose to exceed the speed limit, even by just a little bit, or roll through a stop sign, or if we had to suddenly jump on the brakes … if nobody else saw it, then it never really happened. But thanks to modern auto technology, that’s not the case anymore, is it?
Shawn Turner (01:55):
Yeah. So that’s sort of true in that there are digital bread crumbs, so to speak, of our driving behaviors and patterns. I guess the part that I, I sort of caveat that is the digital bread crumbs exist. It’s doubtful that it’s ever gonna be used for enforcement. ‘Cause I think that’s one of the concerns that people have is, oh my gosh, now there’s a record of something that I did that was wrong or illegal, or it was my fault. But in all likelihood, it’s doubtful that those digital breadcrumbs are ever gonna be used for enforcement purposes. And so I don’t think people should be concerned about that. The other thing that I would say about this is that in all likelihood, the cars of the future are probably gonna help us <laugh>. And, and in fact, in some cases may prevent us from executing some of our bad habits.
Bernie Fette (02:54):
Then what is it that the cars are noting about our driver behavior, about those habits? What are they making note of?
Shawn Turner (03:01):
So some of the most common things are cars will keep a record of when we jam on our brakes, cars will keep track of when do we punch the accelerator? When do cars drift outta the lane? When do they drift basically over a lane line? And so part of the reason why the cars are recording this is because the car manufacturers are creating and in some cases have already created safety features that aim to prevent this from happening in the future. And so basically this data they’re collecting, they want to improve the safety functions in the car. That’s one of the primary reasons why that’s being collected.
Bernie Fette (03:48):
Okay. And that answers my question about what the cars and the keepers of that data are doing with all of that data. You’ve just given us one example, what else, what could we be doing with that data? Is this where other product development comes into the picture?
Shawn Turner (04:04):
Absolutely. So I mentioned in the previous example where the car manufacturers are saving that data because they want to improve the safety features within that car. For example, lane keeping assist — whenever your steering wheel vibrates, like it just ran over a rumble strip whenever you cross a lane line without your turn signal on. So we can improve the car. But guess what? These cars aren’t just driving in a vacuum, these cars are driving on roads that can have imperfections — that can have challenges. And that’s the other part. And that’s where TTI and departments of transportation get involved because the car manufacturers are making the cars better. We wanna make the roads better. We wanna make the roads safer. And so we can use this data to identify where are people jamming on the brakes a lot? And is there something that needs to be improved in the road? Is it a visibility issue? Is it a signing issue?
Bernie Fette (05:08):
Okay. So who is it that has ownership of all of that data? Is it just the automakers that own it, or do transportation departments have any claim on that data?
Shawn Turner (05:20):
It’s a little bit of a wild west <laugh> in terms of data ownership. In the past, data ownership has been a little bit fuzzy in terms of who owns the data and who has the right to use it, but that’s changing as different jurisdictions, different countries, different states recognize the need to better define this in data privacy laws. For example, in Europe, they were one of the first to recognize the need for data privacy legislation, and clearly defining who owns data in what circumstances. And they did that through this law called GDPR or general data protection regulations. And California is one of the first states that has done that in the U.S. And other states are discussing data privacy legislation in the same way. In fact, Texas did in the most recent legislative session. But to answer your question directly, in most cases, the owner of the registered vehicle, they own the data that’s generated.
Shawn Turner (06:33):
However, <laugh>, whenever someone buys a new car, they get handed the stack of paperwork. One of the pieces of paper that’s in there is a form that says, do you give this car manufacturer the rights to use your data? In other words, do you opt into data being collected from your car? Some people are more careful than others. And then they read that when they sign it. Some people they see a big stack of papers. Okay. Yep. Sign that, sign that, sign that. And they don’t realize that they have the right to opt out or they don’t realize that they’ve basically said, Hey, you have the right to use my data for the purposes of improving safety features. But it’s in very general terms.
Bernie Fette (07:26):
And regardless of the reason, the person who’s buying that car is relinquishing the right to that information,
Shawn Turner (07:31):
Correct. They’re basically giving a broad set of rights to the car manufacturer. There is a huge data ecosystem and there are hundreds, if not thousands of companies that are making money on reselling data and packaging and aggregating and adding value to that data. And so in some cases, the car manufacturers may try to monetize that data. They might send it along to an aggregator who then this aggregator might work with several different car manufacturers.
Bernie Fette (08:04):
The whole ownership thing is evolving. One of the things that I haven’t heard you mention that I was wondering about is all of those cars that are collecting the data, they’re collecting it on for the most part, public thoroughfares — an infrastructure that was paid for, with public money, which made me wonder if, if, if that automatically gave any rights of ownership to the agencies that put those roads there, where the cars are collecting the data.
Shawn Turner (08:31):
That is not really part of the mix yet. And so one of the things that’s happening is, so you’re correct in that these private cars are operating on a public right-of-way, but what’s happening right now is the cars are not talking to the public right-of-way. The cars are actually talking and transmitting data to a private cloud. Okay?
Bernie Fette (08:58):
Important distinction. Yeah.
Shawn Turner (08:59):
And right now DOTs are talking and some are trying to get out what we call roadside units. They’re trying to put smarts out along the public roads that will be able to talk to the cars. They’re trying to get to the point where they can put the ability for traffic signals to talk to the cars. And when that happens, then yes. Whenever a traffic signal talks to a car, that’s a public traffic signal, the communications between the traffic signal and the car. Yes. That is now essentially owned by public agencies that maintain the traffic signals.
Bernie Fette (09:38):
And I don’t wanna spend too much time on the privacy thing, but I know that that’s a big part of the puzzle that you’re working with. One thing that comes to mind is that we can be somewhat selective about the data that we share from our smartphones. We can opt out. Drivers don’t necessarily have a similar freedom right now with car-generated data, do they?
Shawn Turner (09:58):
They sort of do, but it’s hidden. And that is one of the things that is changing with privacy legislation.
Bernie Fette (10:06):
Shawn Turner (10:06):
So what’s happening is that the legislation is essentially requiring businesses to make it more transparent about what data is being collected from you when, and essentially gives you the ability to, at any point in time, see what data a company has on you mm-hmm <affirmative>. But again, that legislation is only in a couple of states and it’s not universal everywhere, but there is a movement, again, the recognition that consumers have rights and what those rights are and make sure they’re aware of it. The other piece that I wanna mention is consumers have a responsibility and that’s, I that’s really important. It’s not all just on the private companies. Consumers have a responsibility to be aware of these things. So like for example, many people download an app and right as they’re installing it, they get this screen that most people just sort of gloss right over say, yeah, I accept it. But <laugh>, they have the responsibility to sort of know what’s in there. They have the responsibility to once apps are installed, they can easily go — whether it’s, uh, whether it’s on an Apple device or on an Android device — they can go in and check what apps are reporting my location, what information is being shared by my apps and when.
Bernie Fette (11:36):
I think you may have addressed this whenever you brought up the issue of responsibility, but I wonder what do you say to someone who really doesn’t want anyone to know where they went, or how well or how poorly they drove when they were going to wherever it was that they were going?
Shawn Turner (11:54):
Yeah, that’s possible. <laugh>, that’s possible, but it’s challenging. There’s really, <laugh>, I’ll say there’s two options. One is they can read every line of fine print that they’re ever asked to sign or agree to. And because again, in all cases, they either, they don’t have to download an app. They don’t have to opt in to data being collected from them. But a consumer has to be careful about what they’re agreeing to, what they’re using, because here’s the thing: These things give us all these conveniences. But in order to get personalization, companies and apps typically have to collect some data from you, they have to learn about you.
Bernie Fette (12:38):
So that’s a trade.
Shawn Turner (12:40):
Yeah, it is. So you either have to read every line, the fine print, or you can just not get all these new features. You can buy a 20 year old car. You can get a burner cell phone. You don’t have to use toll roads. But again, it’s that trade-off of you don’t necessarily have the modern-day conveniences of personalization. And I think people need to be informed that there is a trade-off. The trade-off is a bot collects information about me, but that bot does good things for me. Is it worth it? And again, in large part, you can control that. You can opt out. But I think part of it is I opt into certain things because I want to improve things. You know? So like I, when I install software, that’s part of the standard agreement screen. Hey, can we collect data from you? Because we wanna improve a product. Absolutely. I want you to have a better product. And so in the same way, I’m willing to offer up my driving data because I want for the road authorities, for the departments of transportation, to see where there are problems, to see where drivers maybe are having problems with seeing things on the road or where there’s problem areas that need to be addressed. So there’s kind of this social responsibility of sharing my data to make better conditions in the public realm.
Bernie Fette (14:05):
Yeah. Social responsibility is one of the phrases I had in mind. Perhaps oversimplifying, but for the price of a small, personal sacrifice, we can help to ensure greater public good.
Shawn Turner (14:17):
That’s exactly right. And there are certain traffic apps that are really important that are based on that principle. So one of them is it’s actually quite popular. It’s called Waze. And Waze basically asks people to report traffic crashes or incidents that affect other people so that other drivers can have better information about incidents that are gonna affect their commute or their drive.
Bernie Fette (14:43):
And there’s an example of that greater public good.
Shawn Turner (14:46):
Bernie Fette (14:47):
You’ve also made mention of the promise, very clear, that all of this data can serve useful purposes for us in lots of ways. To realize that, what needs to happen going forward with all of the players? The auto manufacturers, the public agencies — what needs to happen to fully realize the great potential that you’re describing here?
Shawn Turner (15:08):
Yeah. That’s a, <laugh>, that’s, that’s a big question in part, because there’s a lot of players involved. Um, you know, it’s not just the vehicle owners, the car makers and the transportation departments. One of the things that we’ve talked about relates to privacy, and one of the things that needs to happen is we need to have more universal legislation across different states to make sure that consumers are informed, protected, and that they’re aware of this trade-off. I’ve mentioned California being one of the states, other states are talking about it, but we almost need to have something that’s national and that doesn’t vary from state to state.
Bernie Fette (15:51):
So something that’s follows some kind of a model.
Shawn Turner (15:54):
Yes, absolutely. In some respects, we have that right now for traffic laws.
Bernie Fette (15:58):
Shawn Turner (16:00):
And so having something that’s universal from state to state that is the same for data.
Bernie Fette (16:06):
In the same way that the standards by which you build a highway don’t change whenever you drive from Texas to Oklahoma.
Shawn Turner (16:13):
Exactly. And so one of the biggest things that need to happen is that we on the public agency side need to recognize the potential of this data and start working to take advantage of it because this is really revolutionary change in how public agencies have collected data. Traditionally, public agencies have collected data by going out to the roadways by putting out their own sensors. But in fact, there’s privately-owned sensors that are driving around every day, millions of them collecting useful data mm-hmm <affirmative> and lots of data. So we need to hire more data scientists in our transportation agencies, and we need to be open to using these newer data sources that maybe we didn’t collect, but it still gives us very valuable information. We need to get these cars talking to the infrastructure more. I mentioned that earlier, right now these cars are talking to private clouds and therefore the public agency has to pay for, has to license this data from private companies.
Shawn Turner (17:23):
We don’t have to pay for the data if we can put out the sensors in our traffic signals and alongside the road where we can collect our own data. Right. And so that would help. And I guess the final thing that I’ll come back to is in all this, we need to make sure that consumers are informed and protected. Otherwise this all can crumbling down. Because somebody influential finds out, oh my gosh, they’re collecting this data. Even though I signed away my right to it. I didn’t realize it. And I, now I’m mad and I’m gonna put the kibosh on the whole thing. No, we need to make sure that that doesn’t happen. That consumers are informed that they’re protected, that they recognize that trade-off.
Bernie Fette (18:06):
Several decades ago, this country started to remake surface transportation in the form of the Interstate Highway System. And that transformed how we move ourselves and the stuff that we need from one place to another every day. Are we potentially witnessing the next transformative phase right now with what we’ve been talking about?
Shawn Turner (18:29):
I think we are. I mean, it’s 60 years ago. It was the Interstate Highway. Now it’s the information highway and it really is a revolutionary change in the type and the amount of information that we’re gathering on our transportation system. And I think if we do the right things to capture that potential, it it’s gonna have huge, huge changes on transportation. And in fact, I think consumers and travelers, they’re starting to see this already. Whenever you can pull up your phone and at the tap of a couple buttons, have a car share show up at your door. It’s only gonna continue from there.
Bernie Fette (19:13):
There’s an awful lot to consider and learn and understand here. What do you hope that people will remember most clearly from our conversation today?
Shawn Turner (19:23):
I think the biggest thing that I would like for our public sector listeners for those folks that are in departments of transportation to remember is there’s already a lot of data being collected from connected cars that we can use. We are not collecting it. Right now, private companies are collecting it and we may have to pay a little bit of money for that, but it can help us a lot. And in fact, we’re already seeing some pretty big gains just from some early research that we’ve done. And so that’s one of the biggest things is that the connected cars here, it’s not talking to our infrastructure yet. We’re not getting it for free, but there’s a lot of data that’s available.
Bernie Fette (20:07):
I’m making this observation, not just on our conversation today, but on conversations we’ve had previously, and just watching the work that you and your colleagues have been doing. You certainly don’t seem to have much trouble mustering enthusiasm for what you do. <laugh> I, I think it was your own reference, whenever you said that you considered yourself to be an evangelist, right?
Shawn Turner (20:31):
Y yeah, I am a data nerd. I get excited. Sometimes I wonder if, if I <laugh>, if I scare people whenever I get emphatic and excited. I think that’s a good thing. And I think I’ve earned the title of data evangelist within TTI, just for the enthusiasm that I show, because here’s what I’ve learned, is that when you get excited, you have the potential to get other people excited about your ideas. Um, if, if I were to sit here and talk dry with no expression, I don’t think I would have the same reception as when I get excited.
Bernie Fette (21:10):
So what is it more than anything else that makes you excited about going to work every day?
Shawn Turner (21:14):
Being able to affect change. Being able to see it, it, it may be small improvements here and there. And so I talk about, and I, I think about there’s these small evolutionary things. We’ve evolved. We make something slightly better, but then there are chances that come along every so often where you can make not an evolutionary, but a revolutionary change. Basically you can take a big jump forward. And I think that’s what we have now with this connected car data is we have the chance to take big steps forward, bigger than what we’ve taken in the past. We just need to take advantage of it.
Bernie Fette (21:56):
It’s okay if you scare people a little bit, just don’t scare the people that might be willing to give you research funding, you know?
Shawn Turner (22:03):
There you go.
Bernie Fette (22:06):
Shawn Turner, senior research engineer at TTI and self-described data evangelist. Thank you, Shawn, for joining us. Thank you for sharing your insights and your vision.
Shawn Turner (22:17):
Thank you for having me. As you can see, it’s always, it’s always a pleasure to talk about data.
Bernie Fette (22:25):
Some technology experts say that data is the new oil. But to fully appreciate that comparison, remember that we’ve been here before. In 1901, the Spindletop gusher in Southeast Texas blew oil 100 feet into the air for nine straight days. By the time it was capped, the well had created a huge lake of crude oil before anyone had a clear sense of what to do with it. Similarly, today we find ourselves awash in a commodity, the value and utility of which has yet to be fully understood or harnessed. Thank you for listening. We hope you’ll be back for our next episode and a conversation with Eva Shipp, an epidemiologist at TTI, who’s working to enhance the safety training programs for truck drivers — for their own wellbeing and by extension for the rest of us who share the roads with them. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.