Google concerns voiced by car giants

VW and Mercedes worried tech giant is digging too deep into customers’ lives

Both Volkswagen and Mercedes have used a major European car industry conference to raise concerns that tech giant Google is using in-car systems to gather too much data about their customers.

Both Google and Apple have been at the forefront of integrating software with in-car systems, the better to allow drivers to easily and legally use smartphones and tablets while on the move.

VW has gone a step further, using Google Maps software for some of its higher-end navigation systems, notably in the Audi A8 and A7.

Now though, the car giants are squaring up to the online colossus, with VW chief executive Martin Winterkorn saying "we seek connection to Google's data systems but we still want to be the masters of our own cars. Potential conflict arises around making data available".


Mercedes chief executive Dieter Zetsche mirrored Winterkorn's concerns, telling conference delegates and assembled media that "Google tries to accompany people throughout their day, to generate data and then use that data for economic gain. It's at that point where a conflict with Google seems pre-programmed. That's where we need to negotiate."

Google’s money-making operation is founded on its ability to monitor users online preferences and peccadillos and target advertising, and indeed Google’s own in-house products, towards them. While that is, to a point, fine and dandy, the car makers are becoming increasingly uneasy about having their customers’ movements monitored, not to mention that Google, with its self-driving car technology, is fast becoming less of a technology partner and more of a rival.

Clearly car makers would also like to have customers’ data harvested for their own marketing needs, again raising frictions with Google.

The car makers are merely catching up with worries about Google, voiced in Wired magazine by writer Rory O'Connor who said "given its record, and with so little accountability, how can any of us trust Google or other Internet giants like Facebook, which now faces its own privacy and anti-trust concerns?

“Who gave these new media companies the right to invade our privacy without our permission or knowledge and then secretly store the data until they can figure out how to profit from it in the future?”


Car makers have been increasingly keen to cosy up to the major technology companies as leadership in connectivity is seen as a key weapon in the battle to keep younger buyers interested in cars.

With more people saying they could not live without their phone than without their car, the drop-off in motoring interest is causing severe anxiety in car company boardrooms across the world.

So far Google and Apple have the lead on in-car integration with their Android and CarPlay set-ups.

Apple is not competing directly with the major car makers in the motoring sphere but thanks to its development of self-driving cars, Google is and that is a major part of what has VW and Mercedes spooked.

If Google’s vision of fleets of automated cars roaming the roads, on call at the touch of a smartphone button, is prophecy, then what need does the world have for companies such as VW and Mercedes?


Google has its own battles to fight, however. The EU’s new competition chief, Margerthe Vestager, recently said that even the vast current investigation by the EU into privacy concerns surrounding Google can’t fully assess every area, so fundamental has Google become to so many people’s lives. What’s worrying for Google is that may mean an even bigger, more thorough investigation down the line.

Its driverless cars are coming under fire too. Cute and cuddly looking they may look, but the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently said it has concerns over those cars being used for criminal, even terrorist, activity.

A recent report issued by the FBI said that “autonomy will make mobility more efficient, but will also open up greater possibilities for dual-use applications and ways for a car to be more of a potential lethal weapon that it is today”.

It cited concerns over Google cars being used as anonymous getaway vehicles or even being used to remotely deliver explosives to a specific address.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring