Today’s cars include up to 100 electronic control units as well as numerous sensor networks and assistance systems. While these devices can improve the comfort and safety of the driver and passengers, they also can collect and store a great deal of information about the current driving pattern, geolocation, traffic or even weather conditions. Some data collected this way can, either by itself or in connection with other data, also be considered personal data.
The importance and number of data-gathering instruments in vehicles will most likely increase once autonomous vehicles hit the road. So-called “connected cars” are even equipped with wireless connectivity that allows real-time transmission of information—even between the vehicles themselves.
Most of the current discussion on connected cars is based around the health and safety benefits that such connectivity could offer. For example, with regard to the European eCall Regulation (2015/758/EU), the European Commission states that “an eCall-equipped car will save hundreds of lives in the EU every year.” This Regulation requires that from March 2018 all new passenger cars and light vans will have to be equipped with devices that automatically alert rescue services to car crash sites.
However, a fundamental question has yet to be answered: whether a piece of data can legally be owned and who would actually own such data. Current EU as well as German data protection laws do not contain provisions adequately addressing this question. Thus, it is unclear whether and to what extent someone can exert legal rights over a single piece or set of data elements. It is in particular unclear whether the drivers, the owners or the manufacturers of vehicles can be said to own the data generated by them. There are some arguments to be made for either standpoint.
It should come as no surprise that many parties, including insurance companies, are interested in car-generated data. In response to a parliamentary question regarding the ownership of car-generated data, the German government drew a distinction between data for vehicle functions on the one hand and data for service functions (e.g. infotainment) on the other hand. Only with regard to the former would the car owner, in principle, have the genuine power to dispose of such data (“tatsächliche Verfügungsgewalt“). Without further regulation, the question of ownership over, and the power to dispose of, such (personal) data could become a controversial and confusing one.