Geography professor Luis Alvarez León studies self-driving cars

by Emily Sun | 2/28/19 2:40am

Geography professor Luis Alvarez León proved his passion for geospatial data after writing his master’s thesis on how Netflix tailors its movie recommendations based on a customer’s location. But, in a recently published study in the journal Cartographic Perspectives, Alvarez León looks into the future of spatial data collection relating to self-driving cars, particularly its political and social implications.

“The way I got to self-driving cars is, I was really interested in different applications of new spatial technologies and how new forms of data commerce were changing the economy,” Alvarez León said. “New navigation technologies … and new forms of informational or digital capitalism are really converging in self-driving cars because … self-driving cars rely on very advanced arrays of spatial technologies to navigate.”

Not only do self-driving cars require GPS, they also require cameras, sophisticated computing and other developing technologies, Alvarez León said. He added that among different companies — including Audi, General Motors, Google and Uber — there is active competition to provide the most advanced spatial information. This would provide the best service and technological development to customers.

“A lot of companies today are relying on geospatial data in various forms in order … to operate,” said David Friedman, former acting administrator and deputy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “You’ve got a choice — either you drive a car based on a map, or you try to figure it out as you go. Obviously, as a human being, we know which of those is harder. Having a map makes it a lot easier, quicker and hopefully safer.”

Issues surrounding privacy about the collection of data from self-driving cars are not new. In fact, previous debates have been waged over Google Street View’s alleged invasion of privacy. These debates and many of these technological and social implications are going to be a part of the data collection of self-driving cars, Alvarez León said. His research tries to find the direction this data collection will lead to, as well as how it will influence the decisions humans make about cities and public resources.

“Congress was proposing that ... if [manufacturers] could demonstrate that their vehicle was safe … then they would be exempt from all federal motor vehicle safety regulations,” said Stephen Zoepf, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University. “Windshield wipers, airbags, seat belts — all those things would be set aside if those organizations could demonstrate that their vehicles were safe.”

Alvarez León said he foresees another problem relating to the security around the collected data. He said that companies hide this data from the public, making it inaccessible to citizens for both security and competitive reasons. This leads to a lack of transparency despite the significant impacts the data may have on areas of the economy. In a recent attempt to bring to light this perceived lack of transparency, hackers have been breaking into the information systems of cars to show how easy it is to breach these systems. Alvarez León said that an increase in transparency, if done properly and under the governance of a proper government authority, should lead to more security.

“In particular, I’m looking at the different policies that have been enacted, the different regulations, the different reactions and statements from the companies,” Alvarez León said. “I’m trying to figure out how the landscape is configured between the different companies and the different levels of governance, both at the local level and the federal level, and in some cases, internationally.”

Alvarez León’s next steps include sketching out both the contextual and theoretical framework to address these issues. He then wants to obtain access to the data withheld by the companies by either partnering up with them or requesting access himself.

“It’s not necessarily like there’s a big solidified block [of people] that has a powerful presence to lobby for more transparency,” Alvarez León said. “There [have] been efforts here and there and lots of organizations are trying to push that way ... so we can have access to data that is not only relevant on a personal level but [also] on a social level, because it’s going to be used for large planning and reorientation of our entire spatial structure.”