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Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Quality Insider

Fear and Loathing With Onboard Diagnostics

Sometimes it feels like somebody’s watching me

Published: Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 11:51

For better or worse, we’ve resigned ourselves to the idea that to live in the modern world, we have to give up total privacy. But even as we wring our hands about the loss of privacy—meanwhile searching Google for stories on the latest security breach—how often do we stop to think about the customer-service benefits we get from allowing someone access to our data, actions, and movements? When was the last time you actually went into a bank? Even after the latest Target breach, how many of us stopped using credit cards or shopping online? So the NSA is looking at cell phone metadata; did we all turn off our smart phones?

The question is, how far are we willing to take open-handed access? Are we willing to give up some privacy in the interest of personal safety? I’m not talking about a body-cavity search at a TSA checkpoint. I’m talking about letting your car, that American symbol of freedom, tell the manufacturer what you are doing and when.

What if a vehicle reported severe anomalies to the automaker in real time, like acceleration coupled with brake actuation, or a key moving to the “off” position while the car was in motion? Think what that could have meant for those Toyota and GM customers allegedly killed by vehicle failures, as well as what it would have meant for Toyota and GM. Toyota recently settled with the Justice Department for $1.2 billion, and GM is facing a huge recall.

Real-time diagnostics could be done right now, today. For years, automakers have been using mobile broadband technology to enhance the customer experience and at the same time gather data useful for future product improvements. By far, the biggest player and earliest adopter of that technology was GM, which from 1996 has offered OnStar, an opt-in service that allows GM to monitor certain aspects of your vehicle’s status as well as provide various types of assistance: navigation, music, roadside service, emergency service, and so forth. Other automakers offer similar services, such as the Ford Sync, Lexus Enform, and BMW Assist. Essentially, all allow the automaker to interact with customers and their cars over cellular broadband; in many cases the automaker knows where the customers are and how their cars are running (or they have that capability even if it’s not currently implemented).

Aside from entertainment, GPS navigation, and other fun stuff, OnStar also offers what is in essence a safety feature in the form of a monthly vehicle diagnostics report that allows your car to send certain vehicle diagnostic information to GM, as long as you have opted in for that service. In that program, a GM vehicle with OnStar is configured to send diagnostic data every 30 days. These data are stored and analyzed, and then a report is sent to the customer. The customer gets a red, yellow, green scorecard for each of several automotive systems and can choose how best to address them. Because these reports are sent directly to customers, they are more likely to start paying attention to their vehicles. Certainly a safety bonus.

“What I can tell you is that the majority of OnStar subscribers who receive vehicle diagnostic reports will take care of a notified issue (action suggested or immediate action needed) by the time of their next month’s report,” says Stefan Cross, communications manager for General Motors. “That shows us that people are listening to their vehicle diagnostic reports.”

But if you aren’t the proactive type?

“The customer can opt in to the dealer maintenance notification, which means that their dealership would be given a copy of their email and the data associated with it,” explains John Correia, GM’s director of advanced development and concepts. “It would tell them, for instance, their oil pressure was low, or tire pressure, also any diagnostic codes their vehicle exhibited. Some of those dealers will take the initiative to contact those customers to offer assistance on those diagnostics codes."

This same information is also available as an in-car app, shown below.

The analysis doesn’t have to stop at the monthly report. Because only a subset of the system’s diagnostics are sent to GM each month, a lot of data are left unanalyzed. If GM wants to gather more information on a particular diagnostic code that appeared in the monthly report, with the customer’s permission, the automaker can have the vehicle send even more in-depth information from the car’s computer.

All of this before the car even goes into the shop.

The immediate benefit for the customer is obvious. But there are long-term benefits as well, and this is where identifying potential safety issues comes in. GM can analyze data over time for various makes and models, and spot trends. These data can help engineers identify problem areas or fine-tune future models based on data collected on existing models.

“We have been doing that for a number of years,” says Correia. “Not only is the data valuable for the customer, but it is also valuable to the engineering community at GM to improve the product or understand how the product is performing. They have various tools to analyze trends in that data, and invariably it helps us identify issues in the field quicker than with the old-fashioned means of waiting for customers to complain about an issue, or waiting for it to come into the dealerships and in a large enough volume for it to show up on someone’s Pareto chart. So we really get an early indication of field issues through mining this diagnostic data.”

So if all this information is available, could it have been used to report on the types of issues that led to the recent GM recall?

“In the near future, our Vehicle Health app will be able to monitor key operating systems like brakes, engine, and transmission in real time, and provide timely feedback to the driver,” says Cross. He wouldn’t comment on whether such an app would have caught the problems related to the recent recall, which in any case, involved older models. But you don’t have to be an engineer to deduce that the same sensors and software that detect engine RPM and vehicle speed can detect if a key has been switched off while a vehicle is in motion. Imagine that the data were reported in real time to GM, which it could right now if OnStar was so configured. It would then make sense that a customer service rep call the owner and ask for information related to that event shortly after it happened, while the incident was still fresh in the customer’s brain. And of course, if that kind of event was seen to happen several times with a particular model and year, that would raise a red flag hopefully long before someone was hurt.

So why isn’t this happening? It isn’t the technology. It’s already possible to do this in the existing hardware and software. It’s in the best interest of the consumer and the automaker, so why not do it? The answer most likely lies at the heart of why most automakers, except, apparently, GM, are unwilling to talk about monitoring your car. Automakers are very skittish about discussing the collection and use of a customer’s car data. GM was the most open about it, probably because it has been collecting data for so long, and OnStar is widely accepted.

Other automakers politely refused to discuss even the possibility of how real-time car analytics could help both customers and automakers, quickly adding that they “take customer privacy very seriously.” One told me that the topic is just too sensitive, and refused to even speculate on how real-time car diagnostics might be used. That customers are too fidgety about sharing data is the widely held perception amongst automakers. Perhaps with some reason. Back in 2011 GM had to back down from potentially sharing OnStar GPS data with third parties after the media and consumer groups went after it.

To understand how the technology works in a real-world scenario, Correia pointed out how OnStar is used in vehicle launches. Typically, automakers have employees drive new vehicles before officially launching them. This gives engineers time to gather data from real drivers and make adjustments before releasing the vehicle to the buying public. Some of these data are sent directly to the GM engineers via OnStar.

“We had a situation in one of our vehicle launches where we had a trend that we were seeing in the battery state-of-charge,” explains Correia. “Comparing to other versions of that vehicle, we identified a specific version of that vehicle that was exhibiting an abnormally low state-of-charge. In some cases that was resulting in a no-start condition.”

(Geek speak for the battery wasn’t getting charged properly, and the user couldn’t start the car.)

“We were able to collect additional information from the vehicle beyond that low state-of-charge indication that actually led us to determine that we had a [charging circuit] configuration that was not optimal for that vehicle,” says Correia. “Because we were able to identify that change sooner than we would have through the normal processes, we were able to save not only our customers significant impact but also save the company money.”

That change was actually a change to a software variable, not a hardware change. So, some of you may leap ahead and ask the question, “If my car can send diagnostics to GM, can GM download configuration upgrades to me?”

Yes. With certain undisclosed models it is possible to actually reconfigure or reprogram the software of select systems in the vehicle, without bringing the car to the shop, says Correia. Just as with the calibration variable in the charging circuit, many of your car’s engine adjustments aren’t mechanical; they’re software. Think on that for bit.

All well and good. Check my car, let me know if something is wrong, download updates. Sure, why not? Now then, how about monitor my behavior? There’s an app for that. In fact, several insurance companies offer an opt-in service that monitors your driving behavior and adjusts your rates accordingly (good thing I don’t have that). But, GM is also signing up customers to monitor how they interact with the car.

And what does monitoring behavior have to do with safety, from GM’s perspective? A lot, it turns out. “For instance, how they respond to warning lights,” explains Correia. “Are they turning features off because they are annoying them? There is a whole area of how customers are using a product, how they are configuring a vehicle.” This type of information could help GM make safety features that weren’t annoying users to the point that they turned them off.

So the question remains, in the interest of safety, is the loss of some privacy in the form of monitoring you and your car’s behavior while on the road worth it? For most of us, a car means freedom. We want to leave everything behind and be weekend Jack Kerouacs, free from the responsibilities of everyday life. No one knows where we’re going or what we’re doing. We like to think that’s what we want, but the reality is most of us also want to feel safe. And whether for safety, or convenience—ours or the automakers’—there is no getting around that eventually when you get in your car to hit the open road, your tattered copy of On the Road on the seat next to you, someone, somewhere, will be watching.


About The Author

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest’s picture

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Dirk Dusharme is Quality Digest’s editor in chief.


Could be selectable...

Great points, Dirk. I think even the most libertarian and privacy-concerned among us would be hard-pressed not to admit the advantages of some of this technology. The ability to track a car that's been stolen, steer first responders to an emergency as well as diagnosing problems in real-time are all pretty hard to argue with. If they want to make it more attractive, they might consider an app that would allow you to share or not--having the ability to disable the data feed might help alleve the concerns of some detractors.

I had to laugh when you pointed out that many of our cars' functions are controlled electronically. As someone who learned to drive in the muscle-car cheap gas '60s (and a pretty fair former shade tree mechanic and hot-rodder), I was pretty sad when they started building cars with no room to work under the hood (and no way to recognize what was there, either). So I was surprised one day to hear a couple of my students in a class talking about modifying a car for street racing. I jumped into the conversation and asked what they were going to do--add headers, a cam, high-rise manifold?

The look they gave me was like the look on my kids' faces when I mention using a slide rule. As it turns out, they had a laptop and had bought an interface to the car's computer, and they had downloaded some apps that they could use to tweak the engine for more torque and horsepower!

Chipping your car

That was pretty funny. Ryan (QD columnist and web master) and I were just talking about "chipping" your car. You can download performance profiles for a lot of different vehicles. What that does to your warranty? Welll.... let's not go there.