TORONTO — The Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto could answer many questions about the future of connected and automated technology in the auto industry, including those relating to privacy.
The project, laid out in detail in February’s print edition of Automotive News Canada and online here, could eventually allow Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google parent Alphabet Inc., to build a “city within a city” just east of Toronto’s downtown core. It would be a densely packed mixed use development that could upend traditional urban planning.
In theory, the neighbourhood would eventually be serviced entirely by a fleet of autonomous vehicles. Building a lifestyle around self-driving cars could radically transform how streets are designed and cities are planned.
Such drastic developments are a long way off. Sidewalk Labs first needs to win approval from the city to develop a smaller plot of land, and it is unclear if Toronto would eventually allow such a large area to be developed by the company.
Even so, Sidewalk’s plans raise several questions governments and the auto industry must grapple with today:
- How much data can or should be collected on individuals’ driving habits?
- Who should have access to that data?
- Should companies be allowed to sell that data?
These are questions that every company and regulator that deals in any capacity with autonomous or connected vehicles should be asking at every stage, because people are becoming increasingly concerned about privacy rights in the age of Big Data.
Look no further than the Sidewalk Toronto project. Already, privacy advocates have raised concerns about potential invasions of privacy and the possibility of the sale of data on individuals to third-party advertisers and other companies.
Sidewalk Labs has vowed to work with government agencies on data. It has promised it would only collect data on what is basically a “need-to-know” basis and would not sell that data to other companies.
Privacy advocates have thus far been focused mostly on the cameras and sensors that Sidewalk Labs would set up throughout the neighbourhood. Sidewalk says the sensors would make buildings, infrastructure and urban planning more efficient, though others see it as a potential invasion of privacy at the hands of a company that’s not directly accountable to the public. If the plans for autonomous vehicles move forward, those same questions will be directed at Sidewalk Labs and the government.
Alphabet and other companies working on similar technology need to have answers. Surveys have frequently shown skepticism from consumers on the viability of autonomous vehicles. Addressing their concerns on privacy would go a long way toward alleviating that.