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​Ford: Our cars will give you control of your driver data

The automaker wants to appeal to those fretting that cars gather increasing amounts of personal data. But make no mistake -- it still would like to make use of that data to improve driving.

Don Butler, Ford's executive director of connected vehicles and services, speaks at Web Summit​ 2015.
Don Butler, Ford's executive director of connected vehicles and services, speaks at Web Summit 2015.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

DUBLIN -- In a world where cameras, motion detectors and other sensors are spreading far and wide, automaker Ford is making personal data protection part of its sales pitch.

Ford, adapting to the arrival of computing technology sophisticated enough to drive your car for you, is packing more and more electronics into its cars, said Don Butler, Ford's executive director of connected vehicles and services, in a talk here Wednesday at Web Summit.

But if you're among those worried about tech companies such as Facebook and Google that gather your personal data, Ford wants to win you over.

"We view the data as your data," Butler said. "We at Ford are merely stewards of that data on your behalf. We're not doing anything without your informed consent and permission."

That doesn't mean Ford isn't interested in using the data, though. "Our challenge is to deliver value that convinces you to share that permission," he said.

His words underscore a growing challenge for anyone embracing today's tech: how much sharing is too much?

Companies like Google -- which has a major self-driving car program of its own -- use data in an effort to deliver better services. Reading your Gmail messages lets it automatically add your flight information to Google Calendar and, starting this week, suggest quick replies to email messages. Apple, which in contrast to Google makes money from selling devices instead of online services, isn't as intrusive. That means more privacy, but also makes it harder for Apple to recommend TV shows you might want to watch or automatically highlight your hotel on your iPhone map.

Computerized cars add a new element to the data-sharing debate.

"The vehicle is a software platform," Butler's said. A typical vehicle now has 70 computer systems that run up to 70 million lines of software code.

Ford may be willing to sacrifice auto sales to adapt to the changing future of auto technology, but that doesn't mean it's no longer trying to impress people with flashy Mustangs. This one is on display at Web Summit.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Those devices generate a tremendous amount of data: 500MB per hour for an older model like a Ford Explorer and 25GB an hour for a new model like a Fusion Energi, he said. That's enough to fill up a Blu-ray disc every two hours. That data rate could increase as cars get 3D laser scanners to judge the world around them, cameras to spot drowsy drivers, microphones used to cancel noise and any number of other sensors.

Car sensors, combined with Internet services, will improve the automotive experience, Butler believes. Among other things, they'll let you easily find parking, navigate more efficiently, and understand weather and traffic conditions, he said.