Car-data concerns should trigger antitrust inquiry and sector probe, BEUC says

15 October 2019 00:00 by Lewis Crofts

Carmakers’ incentives to keep vehicle data to themselves and not share them fairly with repairers and companies offering new services such as navigation should prompt scrutiny from EU antitrust authorities, a consumer group has said.

BEUC wants the European Commission to start an antitrust review of the car industry’s collective plan for standardizing data access, and to conduct a sector-wide inquiry into vehicle data.

The concerns are outlined in a letter to EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, which follows a discussion she hosted with industry groups regarding vehicle data and the future of mobility on Oct. 2. 

The data generated by cars and vehicles are prompting a wave of innovation for carmakers producing smarter vehicles and also related services powered by that information. Insurers, repair shops, makers of in-car entertainment and mapping companies are among those for whom vehicle data will become crucial. 

In the letter to Vestager, BEUC said it was “essential to ensure access to in-vehicle data is non-discriminatory and fair to all service providers and enables a true competition while ensuring full respect of data protection law and the principles of privacy by design and by default.”

The consumer group reserved special criticism for an auto industry-led program, called the “extended vehicle concept,” that gives access to vehicle data gathered from the car and kept on the carmaker’s external servers. 

The concept establishes interfaces for accessing data, differentiating between areas such as the carmaker’s intellectual property, safety-critical applications, telematics and infotainment applications. 

It's promoted by ACEA, the industry association that counts 15 major Europe-based car, van, truck and bus manufacturers among its members, including BMW, DAF Trucks, Daimler, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Jaguar Land Rover, PSA, Renault, Volkswagen and Volvo. 

“ACEA’s extended-vehicle model raises serious concerns from a competition and a consumer point of view: as a single entry point for service providers in after-sales markets, we are concerned that it can be used to discriminate access to data or impose costs that will be transferred to the consumers in the form of higher prices, less choice and ultimately less innovation,” BEUC said in the letter.

While access to some repair information is covered by an EU regulation, access to other kinds of data is based on contracts between the vehicle maker and service providers, under the ACEA concept.

“There are no incentives for car manufacturers to voluntarily allow third parties to access data that will be used to compete against them at service level,” said the letter, signed by BEUC director general Monique Goyens.

“Access to in-vehicle data is such a key component of smart mobility that it cannot be left solely to business-to-business agreements under the terms of car manufacturers: there are serious risks of foreclosure, discrimination and monopoly prices.”

The consumer group is asking for commission officials to scrutinize the program for antitrust compliance. 

It's also suggesting an industry-wide inquiry into car data, to “better understand the market dynamics surrounding the use of in-vehicle data for after-sale services and related-mobility services.”

Such sector inquiries are one of the EU’s most powerful antitrust tools. In the past, they have been deployed in areas such as payment cards, pharmaceuticals and online commerce. Antitrust investigators often start individual probes off the back of such exercises.

In 2018, ACEA stressed the importance of protecting personal data generated in cars, saying this “can only be achieved if relevant vehicle data are communicated to an off-board facility, from where service providers can access the data.”

“This approach minimizes safety and security risks in a way which no other method of access to vehicle data can accomplish,” ACEA said at the time.

A spokesperson for ACEA said today: “Vehicle manufacturers are fundamentally willing to share relevant vehicle data with third parties, provided this occurs in a way that meets strict requirements for road and product safety, as well as data security, and does not undermine their liability.”

“The extended vehicle concept provides an open but secure interface for the provision of third-party services,” the spokesperson said, stressing that the servers were neutral and independently managed.

ACEA said its concept didn't restrict competition — rather, it promoted it.

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