What Your Car Reveals About You

Want to hear something scary? What if your car could tell everything it knows about you?

Stuff like how angry you got at that little old lady who cut you off. How you try to cope with your own road rage. Where you were last night, and how long you stayed there.

We're not there yet, but we're getting closer every day. And it doesn't have to be a bad thing, according to Clifford Nass, professor of computer science, sociology, and several other things at Stanford University.

For several years now, Nass has studied how we interact with the machines that are increasingly taking over our lives. It started with computers, and we know now how much our computers know about us.

In recent years, though, much of Nass' boundless energy has shifted to that icon of personal freedom and gender bravado, the automobile. It's an odd switch, especially for a guy who says he never has been much of a car freak.

Nass, the author of two books on machine-human interaction, said his current curiosity about the automobile began when he was approached by one of the most innovative car manufacturers in the world.

"Toyota had become interested in the idea of having a virtual passenger in the car," Nass said in a telephone interview. "Someone who would drive along with you on a boring route and talk to you and stuff like that, keep you engaged. The idea was that it would be a virtual assistant of some kind, keep you awake, engaged, not bored, sort of make it more interesting for you, just as passengers do in real life."

While he was working on that proposal, another auto manufacturer showed him a demonstration of a system that was designed to help a driver deal with personal emotions.

"It would tell if the driver was upset," Nass said. "The driver is driving along and the car says, 'Oh, you seem a little upset, you should try to calm down.' But instead of calming down, the driver became even more upset and he started driving worse. And then the car said, 'Oh, you're driving very badly, you really must calm down,' which of course made the guy even madder. And then the car said, 'Oh, you're getting very, very upset, you really should consider pulling over,' and, of course, the guy slammed into a wall.

"So, I realized that there wasn't an appreciation of how important and powerful it would be when cars started talking," he said.

Of course, cars already have started talking, as anyone knows who has turned the wrong direction to the consternation of a voice coming from a GPS system. But that's only the beginning.

Nass sees the car of the future as a vehicle that learns what kind of restaurants we prefer, communicates regularly with the outside world through increasingly ubiquitous wireless networks, keeps records of just about everything, and generally monitors our behavior.

That kind of information, he says, could be very interesting to a lot of other folks. Like law enforcement officers, especially after an accident. Or insurance companies that may be interested in knowing how fast you drive, or conversely, how careful you are. And, of course, advertisers.

It won't be necessary to spoon-feed the car all this information. It will pick it up naturally, because the car will know where you go, where you stop, how long it took you to get there, etc. In fact, it already does, although, at this point, the information is used within the car, hopefully, to help you get where you are trying to go.

But these may soon become the good old days of simple driving. Nass thinks the car's surveillance system will soon broadcast its secrets to other users, some of whom want to keep tabs on us, and some of whom want to help us.

"There's clearly a positive side to this," said Nass, an upbeat sort of guy.

Some might say the last thing we need is more avenues for advertisers, he notes, but on the other hand, it could be convenient. Say you're driving into a new town and it's getting close to lunchtime.

"So, your car might say, 'Hey, I know you like Italian restaurants (because you stop there so often) so, if you would like to come to this restaurant, I could arrange a discount,'" Nass said.

That kind of advertising might appeal to the manufacturers of navigation equipment as a new source of revenue, and it might appeal to the car owner as a way to lower the cost of the equipment. So, we all get pulled in, because having a car that automatically senses your preferences, might simplify your life, even if it means letting in more hucksters.

Again, we're not there yet, but we may be getting closer. Some systems already broadcast an alert when the airbags are deployed. Many new cars are equipped with wireless technology.

"The black boxes in cars are getting more and more sophisticated," Nass said. "So, the information is already being gathered. Right now it's being gathered within the car for the car."

But it may not remain confidential much longer.

Nass thinks our machines will increasingly interact with us in many ways, including speech, learning our habits, solving some of our problems and creating others. We'll trade some of our privacy for convenience, and our cars will know as much about us as we know about them, and probably a lot more.

"There's value to be had," Nass said.

Easy for him to say. He's not exactly hooked on having the latest gizmo in his car, but he still thinks our cars speak volumes about our inner selves.

By the way, he drives an "old Volvo."

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.