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Data privacy

Smart cars and data as the fuel of the future

Johann Jungwirth of Volkswagen sees a future where your car knows you, caters to you and works for you – even when you’re not driving it.

Very soon, the roadways will be populated with self-driving cars. Along with a myriad of technological challenges to be overcome, there are other considerations that must be addressed, such as personal data and privacy. To hear directly from a key innovator at a global automotive brand, we spoke with Johann Jungwirth, the chief digital officer at Volkswagen.

His remit is to lead the charge for innovation at the manufacturer with a special emphasis on autonomous driving, mobile connectivity and user experience. In the interview that follows, Jungwirth shares his thoughts on how personal data is used in the design of autonomous and connected vehicles and how privacy concerns are addressed.


Answers: What privacy considerations are being taken into account when designing a networked, AI-enabled car that collects, stores and uses personal data to improve the mobility experience?

Johann Jungwirth: What we have in mind is to actually create an experience which we call digital fairness. In this environment, where customers are connected in an AI-enabled car, we want to be completely open and transparent in terms of data usage, collection and so on. We want to put the user in control of that data.

To be clear, we differentiate between personal data and anonymous data. It’s important that for any personal data we get the consent of the users. That is a key to make this a great experience – that people have a feeling that in this digital age with digital fairness we are continuing to be brands and have products which can be trusted.

We are a great company with great brands – Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley and Bugatti – and actually we have a competitive advantage. People have trusted us with their lives for more than 100 years, and we can use the trust we have earned into the digital age.

Answers: How do car manufacturers access consumers’ personal data through the networked car? Who exactly will have access to your personal data?

Jungwirth: That depends on the use cases and also on the consent. An example would be if customers give us the consent to use personal data to provide predictive maintenance to them; to monitor the components, the modules and to let them know up front before a repair or maintenance is required.

Then we would be able to use that data, contact the customer and give them that additional convenience. If we do not get that consent, then of course that additional convenience and better experience could not be offered.

Answers: In an interview with The Innovator last June, in speaking of forthcoming AI-enabled vehicles you stated that, “When you enter a vehicle — even a rental car from one of our brands — you will be recognized.” Do you foresee the rental car company then also having access to a person’s data, along with the automotive manufacturer? Who is responsible for the oversight and handling of the data in that case – the rental company or the manufacturer?

Jungwirth: On the benefits side, when we are talking about the digital ecosystem it would be a great convenience for users if they could take their personal profiles from vehicle to vehicle, such as vehicles they own and vehicles they rent.

If you think about renting your next car and it’s the same brand, or from the same group as your personally owned or leased car, within a few seconds it could be set up with your profile, all your preferences, your settings, your radio stations, your ambient lighting, your controls, and so on. That would be a great convenience, and I’m pretty sure customers would love that.

Of course, we need customer consent. Secondly, I do not see any reason why rental car companies should have access to this data. In my opinion, the control over this data – the oversight and handling – is through us as the manufacturers and our digital platform.

Johann Jungwirth
Johann Jungwirth, Chief Digital Officer at Volkswagen.

Answers: Given that different cultures or geographies may respond differently to an AI-enabled and networked car (citing potential data privacy concerns), how does a manufacturer tailor the experience to maximize convenience and minimize data sensitivities?

Jungwirth: We take data privacy, data security and cybersecurity extremely seriously. This approach of digital fairness is a hard requirement; meeting all of the legal requirements and GDPR of course. That’s only one side.

The other side, that’s even more important for me, is if you think about data encryption. I do not even want us as a company to have access to certain data. It should not be able to have access to a user’s profile or preferences or things like that, even if I wanted it. These should be transmitted through a secure link, encrypted and saved encrypted on our digital platforms. That means it’s really data privacy by design.

In that regard, I have to say it means that most of the intelligence is local on the device, on the vehicle side. And really even only transmit data, which is really required to be stored in a profile, if we have the consent. But even with that consent, wherever possible we should have this data encrypted and stored encrypted, so that actually we don’t even have access to it.

A good reference is Apple. If you go to Apple.com/privacy, they have a clear commitment to this and a very similar approach. You look at Siri, how that’s handling the data locally, not reading your emails and not reading your calendar data, and so on. So this device-focused, encrypted, and privacy-by-design focus is part of our digital fairness approach.

Answers: Earlier this year, you became a member of Iota Foundation’s Supervisory Board, which is exploring use cases for blockchain, Internet of Things, and more. What are some of the use cases you see forthcoming for blockchain in the autonomous vehicle space?

Jungwirth: All of these use cases are connected to transactions. If you think about faster transactions like payment: these vehicles will park themselves, they will go and charge themselves. There are a lot of these transactions, like entering through a gate into a parking garage, or cleaning services, or repair, or maintenance. That means there are a number of trusted transactions for these vehicles. These are the primary use cases which I see covered through either blockchain or tangle or any of these distributed ledger technologies.

Maybe to add to that, think of this more in a longer term. You could imagine that eventually these autonomous vehicles could become entrepreneurs. The vehicle itself could define autonomous pricing based on demand, then actually handle all the payments for parking and charging, and with customers it could handle transactions for the mobility, transportation payments, including e-commerce and advertisements. That’s the longer-term direction.

Answers: Are you suggesting that people could even sublet their vehicle, when they’re not using it, they could almost Uber-ize it or something; it becomes a revenue stream for them?

Jungwirth: That’s exactly the case, especially for owned vehicles. When you don’t need it for 10 hours at work, your vehicle basically works for you. You could be able to, depending on how much time you don’t use your vehicle, give it into a self-driving electric vehicle fleet for mobility-as-a-service; you actually might earn more than your lease rate is.

Answers: Your role at Volkswagen is pivotal as it undertakes to ramp up its efforts in connected cars and the digital automotive experience. What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your tenure at Volkswagen?

Jungwirth: Number one, I personally believe that mobility-as-a-service will actually be one of the biggest disruptive solutions for automotive. I look at three axes of disruption in automotive in the next five to ten years:

  • Number one is the axis of disruption from combustion engines to electric drive.
  • Number two, from human-driven vehicles to self-driving automobiles.
  • Then number three (and they’re all orthogonal to each other) is the shift from ownership to shared mobility or mobility-as-a-service (which actually combines the axes two and three).

There is a massive transformation. When I look at mobility-as-a-service, I see a business transformation and disruption with five business layers:

  • The number one value layer, profit pool and business is the self-driving system itself. That’s one of the biggest engineering challenges of our lifetime.
  • Number two is the self-driving vehicle development with different use cases, different interiors, different services, maybe a gaming pod, a fitness pod, a wellness pod, an office pod or a lounge pod.
  • Then layer number three is the fleet operations and fleet control center, which includes the maintenance, repair, charging, parking and infrastructure as part of the fleet operation.
  • Layer number four is the mobility platform with different kinds of mobility services like ride hailing, ride pooling and so forth.
  • And layer number five is what I call the content layer. The content providers’ network which offers education, services like productivity, gaming or entertainment but also advertisements. You can think of potentially even free mobility and free transportation to service providers such as restaurants and hotels. Even today, if you booked through OpenTable, the restaurants get a commission for the reservation.

Think about mobility-as-a-service through self-driving electric vehicles. With costs potentially going down to 20 cents or so per mile, within a five-mile radius to a service provider transportation to the restaurant, grocery store or the airport might become ubiquitous and included in the price of your meal for lunch or dinner, or to go to a hotel.

It’s really amazing to me. I have to say this is what I’m looking forward to. This is what wakes me up at night, what I think about and work on with a lot of passion. I’m so happy to be a part of this and to actually make this happen within the next few years.


Learn more

For additional content concerning the use of personal data in the digital age, be sure to explore the rest of our multimedia series: A new dawn for data privacy and transparency.

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