Why ‘Spy in Your Mercedes’ is An Important Story

A screaming front page headline in the UK’s top selling daily newspaper that cars are spying on us may baffle most in the auto technology world as to whether it’s even a news story?

Because, while The Sun red-top tabloid’s line ‘THERE’S A SPY IN YOUR MERCEDES’ will come as no surprise to industry followers, it will ring several alarm bells among the paper’s 1.4 million buyers. That’s because, for all that auto tech pundits push the idea that a car is the new smartphone, many motorists stubbornly hold on to a very different emotional relationship with their cars than their digital devices.

The paper takes umbrage with the automaker using geo-tracking devices on vehicles that are supplied on lease agreements, forming the bulk of Mercedes-Benz products marketed in the UK today. It quotes the company as confirming that: “When a customer chooses to finance the purchase of their car this way they sign a contract and agree to the location sensors in the car being activated in the event that they default or breach their agreement. Locating the car is part of the repossession process and is not permanently tracking customers. It is only activated in exceptional circumstances where the customer has breached their finance agreement and repeatedly failed to reply to requests to contact us.”

Yet, despite the carmaker adding, “this clause in the finance contract is in bold print, just above the customer’s signature”, the paper manages to line up politicians and data privacy lawyers to express outrage that this is occurring.

Now, few consumers spend much time worrying about signing away privacy rights to access personal location details for any number of apps that can be downloaded on to their phones but the thought a ‘personal friend’ that is the car, even one that’s on lease, goes beyond the pale of acceptability for many consumers. This forms a huge challenge to both carmakers and suppliers hoping to find new revenue streams in on-the-go services not unlike that posed by a possible ban on handsfree communications in the UK. The nub of the newspaper’s fury revolves around there being inadequate communication between the carmaker/dealer about the level of data the leaser is signing away when taking on the contract.

That shows how differently consumers still feel about vehicles and their relationship with the automaker and its dealer network remains a valued experience with the vast bulk of new cars still bought through dealers and about 80% on lease agreements including PCP [personal contract purchase] agreements.

Yet, eCall has been installed in every new vehicle sold in the EU since April 2018 and that system has all the geo-location facilities to activate in the event of an emergency. No-one has yet raised an eyebrow over privacy with this system possibly because its service, the fast and efficient deployment of emergency services in the instance of serious collision, is worth the data exchange?

So, the challenge is clear, for the industry to make the access to consumer’s data clearer and, here’s the main key, even desirable with enough attractive services to make the consumer actively seek the engagement the automakers so desperately want, and need, if they are to weather the huge changes in mobility provision for the future.

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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