New Car Tech: Smartphones In, Privacy Out

While the new 2014 Toyota cars have a lot to love with their advanced technology and navigation, there is also, very surprisingly, something to hate. This tech comes at a high price: loss of privacy. Toyota knows exactly where you are at every moment of every day — period. Is that what we want?

Don’t get me wrong — I have been a big fan of Toyota for many years. It has always been rock solid and very reliable. Toyota cars are full of modern technology, and they make driving fun.

However, the latest version of its tech often requires a smartphone data plan to work.

There are two problems with this:

  • One, only half of us have a smartphone. That means many won’t be able to use the technology. Also, many smartphone users don’t have an unlimited data plan — so they might be hit with overage charges every month.
  • Two, Toyota knows exactly where we are at all times.

Unanswered Questions

The 2014 models have been rolling out, and I have been driving a brand new Highlander. I have been very happy with the major changes.

This is a powerful, smooth-riding and quiet vehicle, loaded with room for passengers and stuff in a very attractive package, inside and out. The Highlander sits lower — more like a car. It’s easier to get into because it sits on a car frame. The 4Runner is roughly the same size, but it sits higher and is on a truck frame. I really like most features of the Highlander.

Much of this advanced tech comes from Lexus, which is Toyota’s luxury brand. Lexus is similar to Mercedes Benz and Cadillac. Lexus does offer more features; however, it costs more as well.

The new technology in the 2014 Toyota Highlander and many other next-gen cars is truly amazing. Some of the new tech is the information on the dashboard. There is a speed limit graphic on the dash, which changes to a new number every time the speed limit on the road changes. Very cool.

The advanced navigation system provides traffic information not only on the main streets and highways, but also on many secondary roads. It also predicts what is coming, so you can see what the traffic will look like in the next hour or so.

Live weather reports are available for many cities around the country, with information from the Weather Channel. You can view a map to check the weather in front of you or anywhere in the country.

The radio and entertainment system lets you replay the last minute or so of what you just heard on the radio, which is helpful. However, the same system accommodates only one CD or DVD. You can watch a movie, so that’s a plus.

All this new technology — and much more — makes this Toyota a vehicle to die for.

However, this advanced technology doesn’t come without a price. There are lots of hiccups and questions that no dealer has been able to answer — not so far anyway, and I have asked many dealers to date.

That is part of the problem with this new technology. No one at the Toyota dealerships seems to have the answers. This is a problem Toyota needs to fix. It must train its dealers better.

It also should provide a toll free number and website with live chat to answer confused customers’ questions.

New technology is great, but it generates tons of simple questions. Answer these questions quickly for your customers, and you continue to build the brand relationship. Confusion will negatively impact that customer relationship.

The Privacy Dilemma

So how does this new navigation system work? While previous versions always worked with live traffic and no smartphone connection, this new version seems to require a smartphone connection, at least some of the time.

When I drive around my home town, the system seems to work fine with no smartphone connection. However, once I drive outside of the metro area, the live traffic signal and weather data simply disappear. Not good. In previous versions, the traffic information never just disappeared from the screen.

When the system seems to work well without a smartphone, I’ve noticed there is an HD connection indicated on the screen. So maybe the car receives an HD signal from Toyota in certain places, like inside metropolitan areas.

However, as soon as I leave the metro area and lose the HD signal, I lose the ability to receive live traffic and weather.

With my smartphone hooked up, the live traffic and weather reappear, although it takes several minutes. I imagine this will eat up data allowances, so make sure you have an unlimited plan on your smartphone before you jump in.

If you don’t have a smartphone, you may not be able to get this live traffic and weather information. Too bad Toyota does not allow you to fall back to the old system in this case.

Another problem is that once you are connected with your smartphone and need to make a call, you must talk over the car speakers. Sound quality is often distorted. You can disconnect your smartphone to make the call, but when you turn the connection back on, it does not always reconnect.

In that case, you are out of luck until you stop and turn the car off and then on again. This same problem exists when you dictate an email or text message, or use a service like Apple’s Siri.

So how does Toyota connect to your car? It appears it uses multiple ways. It uses the HD signal in big cities, but in other areas, it uses another technology — some other wireless network, like AT&T Mobility, Verizon Wireless or Sprint, or maybe a satellite radio signal like Sirius XM, or maybe a lesser-known wireless network.

There is one big issue that seems to be ignored: invasion of privacy. Remember when I described how the speed limit icon on your display changes as soon as you cross into a different speed zone?

On one hand, this is great. On the other — how does it know exactly where you are to display new information? Good question. Apparently Toyota knows where we are every minute of every day, period. Is that good? Neither I nor the people I have asked think so.

However, we are losing privacy in all aspects of our lives — from our smartphones to our cars, so this is just part of our future. What’s next?

This new Toyota technology — and in fact, tech from other carmakers as well — is rolling out, and it takes your breath away. You’ll love what it does for you.

Just remember a piece of advice offered by my grandparents when dealing with the loss-of-privacy issue: Keep your nose clean, and don’t drive to or park anywhere you wouldn’t want to be seen if your picture should show up on the front page of the local newspaper.

Jeff Kagan

E-Commerce Times columnist Jeff Kagan is a technologyindustry analyst and consultant who enjoys sharing his colorful perspectives on the changing industry he's been watching for 25 years. Email him at [email protected].

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories

E-Commerce Times Channels