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Senate Must Fix Privacy Loophole in Federal Self-Driving Car Bill

The House bill passed by a unanimous voice vote last week is generally good, but the loophole in the section dealing with privacy protections is a potential disaster for consumers.

(TNS) -- The House of Representatives’ bill governing self-driving vehicles has a hole in it big enough to drive an autopilot Mack truck through.

The Senate has to close it when it tackles its parallel legislation later this month.

The fully autonomous vehicle market is estimated to hit $87 billion by 2030, which could ignite another tech boom to fuel the U.S. and Silicon Valley economies for decades — but not if people are afraid to use the machines for fear of losing their privacy. That’s what’s at risk in the federal legislation.

The House bill passed by a unanimous voice vote last week is generally good. The clear intent is to get self-driving vehicles on American roads quickly and with nationally consistent oversight, rather than going state-by-state. But the loophole in the section dealing with privacy protections is a potential disaster for consumers.

Section 12 of the “Self-Drive Act” requires that manufacturers develop a privacy plan that outlines what information is collected, how it is used and shared, and the extent to which users have control over the data collected from their vehicles by manufacturers. That’s all good. But a provision of Section 12 virtually eliminates any protections.

It says “if information about an occupant is anonymized or encrypted the manufacturer is not required to include the process or practices regarding that information in the private policy.”

Say what?

According to San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the practical effect is that if manufacturers encrypt the data, they are no longer required to disclose what is collected, how it is used, how it is stored, or whom they share it with — even if they decrypt it later.

That means the information from your vehicle could tell the manufacturer which stores you frequent and when — any information about your driving habits that could be used for marketing purposes, or any purposes for that matter.

The legislation before Congress is critical because it will further shape the Department of Transportation’s non-binding federal guidelines for those working on self-driving car technology.

The Trump administration on Tuesday indicated that it would like to ensure that the federal government, rather than individual states, have authority over regulating self-driving vehicles.

That’s a plus for the tech industry, which won’t have to worry about individual states making conflicting rules that will slow innovation. But besides closing the privacy loophole, the Senate should include in its version of the law a requirement California has passed requiring manufacturers to report accidents involving self-driving vehicles.

The House bill and Trump guidelines make reporting voluntary, but that’s not enough. Companies whose cars are crashing willy nilly will have no incentive to comply.

Hundreds of liability and safety questions need to be resolved before self-driving cars and trucks are ready for prime time. If the privacy loophole and accident reporting are addressed in Congress, the law will protect consumers while encouraging rather than impeding this world-changing technology.

©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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