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What Your Car Knows About You

Auto makers are figuring out how to monetize drivers’ data. What Your Car Knows About You

Car makers are collecting massive amounts of data from the latest cars on the road. Now, they’re figuring out how to make money off it.

With millions of cars rolling off dealer lots with built-in connectivity, auto companies are gaining access to unprecedented amounts of real-time data that allow them to track everything from where a car is located to how hard it is braking and whether or not the windshield wipers are on.

The data is generated by the car’s onboard sensors and computers, and then stored by the auto maker in cloud-based servers. Some new cars have as many as 100 built-in processors that generate data.

Drawing Out Data

Auto makers have the ability to collect data from various points on the car, pulling information generated by the vehicle’s on-board sensors and computers.

Already, some car makers are gathering this data to provide feedback to help improve a car’s performance, refine features and alert them to any potential quality problems early on. They’re also using it to create new and more personalized services for drivers.

But many car makers have bigger plans, including using the data to craft targeted in-car advertisements or selling it to mapping firms looking to provide more accurate traffic information.

General Motors Co. , Ford Motor Co. and other major car makers are hoping these connected-car services will generate new revenue streams that can help them diversify beyond their core business of building and selling cars. While it is still early days, McKinsey & Co. estimates monetizing data from connected cars will be worth up to $750 billion by 2030 as more cars are shipped with pre-installed modems and other internet-connected devices.

“To some extent, the sky is the limit for what could be done with the data,” said Cason Grover, Hyundai Motor Co.’s senior group manager for vehicle technology planning.

Hyundai early next year will launch a new program that gathers data from vehicles on driving habits—such as how hard a car brakes or the miles it travels in a day—and use it to help owners get discounts on auto insurance. Hyundai says the data is only collected with the owner’s permission and shared with the auto insurer as a score rating the driver’s performance. Ford, GM and other car makers are also working with auto insurers to offer discounts based on driving data.

GM, through its Marketplace app, uses location and other vehicle data to help drivers find parking and schedule service appointments at nearby dealerships. The auto maker also uses location data and a vehicle’s keyless entry feature to offer in-car delivery of Amazon packages.

Later this year, GM also plans to introduce a new feature that can detect when a vehicle’s fuel tank is low and then offer a coupon on the car’s display for a discount at a nearby gas station, said Brian Hoglund, a business development director for GCCX, GM’s connectivity unit. Retailers then pay GM a fee for steering customers their way.

The Marketplace app is currently available in more than 2 million GM vehicles in the U.S. That number is expected to expand to 4 million by the year’s end.

Mr. Hoglund said customers benefit from sharing the data by having access to these services. But they must opt in first to each new app or feature before it can collect any data.

Ford recently launched a new service that contracts with companies and municipalities to gather data generated by vehicles used in fleets, such as police cars and delivery vans. The service can track fuel consumption and miles traveled, as well as monitoring driver behavior, such as whether the car is speeding or the seat belt is in use. The auto maker then sells the data and analytics to the fleet operators as a service.

Employers determine whether a driver can opt out of the monitoring, a Ford spokeswoman said.

Ford is also looking at other ways to monetize vehicle data, estimating that in the longer term, the effort could generate up to $100 per vehicle each year in additional value, said Don Butler, Ford’s executive director for connected vehicle and services.

The efforts come at a time when privacy concerns have increased due to recent controversies at Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc. over their handling of consumer data.

Car companies stress that they get the owner’s consent first before gathering any data. In cases where it is collected and provided to third parties, the data is anonymized, meaning it is scrubbed of all personal information and batched together with data from other vehicles to provide a more generalized picture of a car’s operations or consumer driving habits.

Still, privacy experts say it is not always clear to consumers when they are giving consent. As with other electronic devices, the data disclosures are often buried in the terms and service agreement and described in ways that aren’t always easy for customers to understand.

“That’s not going to give consumers a full sense of how their data is being used and collected any more than it is online,” said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, who specializes in digital privacy.

The auto industry is in many ways following the lead of tech sector, where companies collect user data online and via mobile-phone usage, and then use it to either improve their own services or sell it to third-party app developers and marketers.

“A lot of the reason an app or service in a car may be free is because you’re paying with your data,” said Mark Boyadjis, an analyst with IHS Markit, who leads the firm’s connected car research.

Today, auto makers can pull hundreds of different data points from the car, including everything from the odometer reading and blinker status to the tire pressure level.

“It’s really like your cellphone but it is bigger and on wheels,” said Lisa Joy Rosner, of Otonomo, an Israeli-based startup that works with auto makers to process and license vehicle data.

Otonomo’s business model is built around it taking car maker-provided data, cleaning it up so it is easier to use and read, and then licensing it to third-parties, such as app developers, insurance companies and municipalities. All the data is stripped of any personal information. Auto makers then collect the licensing revenue with Otonomo getting a small cut.

The firm is one of a number that have emerged in recent years to serve as a marketplace for vehicle data. Other startups include U.K.-based Wejo Ltd. and Germany’s Caruso GmbH.

One application the auto industry is exploring is providing windshield wiper data to weather-service providers to more accurately track rainstorm patterns. Car makers also sees potential in using the vehicle’s onboard cameras and sensors to provide mapping firms with more accurate roadway information, as well as real-time data on traffic patterns, analysts say.

Hyundai’s Mr. Grover said eventually car companies will use the data for more predictive applications, such as learning a driver’s habits and making route suggestions.

“Over time, we will know where you usually go for coffee and know what your commute is,” Mr. Grover said. If the car detects a traffic jam along the way, it can suggest an alternative route, he added.

“Once the vehicle is autonomous, it will use all the same data to make its own decisions.”

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