Well, Tesla’s Elon Musk spoke — again — about “privacy” issues with its vehicles in China, reiterating that it’s nonsensical to think that the EV maker would be engaged in anything nefarious.
The Chinese government banned Tesla vehicles from its facilities because of the vehicles many cameras. Musk spoke about it recently in an attempt to assuage any fears about the vehicles being used to spy on government installations. Then, the company offered up another bit of supporting evidence, according to Reuters.
“Even in the United States, car owners can freely choose whether to turn on its (the camera system’s) use. Tesla is equipped with a network security system with world-leading security levels to ensure user privacy protection,” the company said in a post on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
So problem solved, right? Uh, maybe.
Musk says a lot of things
There are those who take EVERYTHING Musk says with a huge grain of salt.
“If Elon Musk said something, it’s almost 100% fishy,” said Sam Abuelsamid, automotive analyst for Guidehouse Insights in Chicago. “He will say anything to defend himself, regardless if it is true.”
While speaking at a virtual forum in Beijing in March, held not long after the initial reports of the ban surfaced, Musk emphasized the company’s business motivations for protecting user privacy.
“There’s a very strong incentive for us to be very confidential with any information,” Musk said.
That’s nice, said Abuelsamid, but does that mean Tesla is willing to reduce the effectiveness of the vehicles anti-collision systems, the effectiveness of driver-eyes-on-road systems? Simply put, just because Musk has said something, doesn’t mean the underlying issues he’s talking about have been solved.
Abuelsamid compared Musk to former president Donald Trump. They both tweet a lot, both say things that aren’t true and have both enjoyed success as a result. The analyst does credit Musk with helping create a market for EVs. But as technology advances, new questions of privacy are being raised, and not just in China.
Privacy will be an ongoing issue
Americans will have to get used to losing privacy as Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology advances.
“Hey, if you take an AV taxi ride home, that car is going to have internal sensors that monitor you,” Abuelsamid said. “So if you light up, the car will know and you’ll get charged a cleaning fee. The car will know when you got picked and when you got dropped off and the route you took on your trip.”
There will be “black” box evidence that could be used against a driver in case of an accident.
Internal camera images will probably be preserved, but given the number of external cameras, so much data will be generated that the information won’t be sent to the cloud for preservation.
“We don’t have the bandwidth or the profit incentive to save all the information generated by AVs,” Abuelsamid said. “So 99% of the data won’t be saved.”
This tech drives the cars — literally
But that doesn’t mean huge questions of privacy have been solved. Musk said if Tesla ever used its cars to spy in China, or anywhere, the company would get “shut down everywhere.”
“If a commercial company did engage in spying, the negative effects to that company would be extremely bad,” he said at last month’s China Development Forum, a gathering organized by a unit of the country’s State Council.
Tesla, like many other automakers including General Motors, uses several small cameras, mainly located on the outside of the vehicle, to help guide parking, autopilot and self-driving functions.
The technology exists in cars today. Just because Tesla says it won’t spy on drivers doesn’t mean that third parties with less than honorable intentions won’t spy on drivers.
And if Americans are as concerned about security and privacy as the Chinese, what will Musk say about that?
This issue isn’t going away — no matter what Musk says.