Danny Titolo is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Toyota, Microsoft and Salesforce.com recently announced a partnership to build a social network for Toyota customers. The network is called “Toyota Friend” and aims to create an instant messaging quartet between the owner, car, dealer and factory. Users can gain access through cellphones, tablets or computers creating networks similar to Facebook or Twitter.
This new social network is being set up with the help of Microsoft and Salesforce.com, which will allow the service to be built on open-source cloud platforms. The service will first launch in Japan in 2012 with electric vehicles and hybrids, then later worldwide.
Toyota feels that a car that is more social media-friendly will appeal to potential drivers. One of the features these vehicles will have is real-time announcements. An example is drivers will be informed when their battery is not sufficiently charged.
In a Tokyo showroom, a Prius hybrid had sent a text message to a cell phone as a reminder to recharge the vehicle overnight. The Prius was also able to inform the owner at what point the charge would be completed. Toyota sees this as innovative since they feel that battery-powered cars are where the automobile industry is headed.
Entering the social media world does not come cheap. The project is costing over $12 million; with Toyota investing $5.5 million, Microsoft Corporation investing $4.1 million and Salesforce.com investing $2.8 million.
The instant messaging between owner and vehicle can be maintained privately through a cell phone or made public on Facebook and Twitter. Exchanges can also be shared with other Toyota Friend users. The dialoguing between the owner and vehicle will most likely be maintained by sensors situated throughout the car. Sensors are very common in modern vehicles; drivers can activate various applications through voice commands and also have access to sensor-assisted parking. The main unique feature of Toyota’s idea is the back-and-forth dialogue between the driver and vehicle.
One issue that has not been specifically addressed at this early stage is when vehicles will issue their “tweet-like” messages to owners. It can be argued that this type of instant messaging may encourage cell phone use in cars. Over the past several years many nations, particularly Canada, have cracked down on cellphone use while driving. A potential solution could be that messages will only be sent if the vehicle is parked or the ignition is turned off. This will reduce the danger associated with reading messages while driving. The drawback may be that it reduces the dialogue between the vehicle and driver as well as limits the ability for the vehicle to send potentially important messages in real-time.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda said that he “hope[s] cars can become friends with their users, and customers will see Toyota as a friend.” Marc Benioff, Chief Executive Officer of Salesforce.com, feels that social networks are helpful to companies in many ways. They can provide valuable information to Toyota about the users of their vehicles as well as whether or not the vehicles are functioning effectively.
There was some speculation that Toyota has been battling with productivity issues and parts availability since the tsunami hit Japan over two months ago. Regardless of this set back, Toyota is still moving full speed ahead.
Interesting technology. In terms of messege timing, perhaps different parameters could be set up by the customer. For instance, the customer could establish a set time of midnight for messeges to be sent to his or her phone. The customer could also potentially choose from an established list of situations that would be considered emergencies and would override the set time to be sent as a real-time messege. While this does not address the issue of reading messeges while driving, at least in Canada drivers are now encouraged to use hands-free devices in their cars. I believe that it may also be possible to have your text messeges read to you while you drive.
It is also interesting that this technology would allow Toyota to collect information about those who participate in the Toyota social network. What sort of information will they be collecting? Could this be a privacy issue? Something to consider.
The privacy issue is a good point. I wonder if Toyota could address that with a disclaimer of some sort. There isn’t too much information out there yet on what kind of data Toyota will be collecting about their customers. I’m sure it will be data on particular habits and preferences of the users of their vehicles. That way future models can be modified accordingly. Perhaps the network will record every instant message that is delivered between the driver and vehicle, dealer, etc.
Personally, I foresee similar issues arising that were raised recently in a previous blog regarding an employee being fired over Facebook comments (http://www.iposgoode.ca/2011/05/being-fired-for-comments-on-facebook-speech-social-media-and-the-workplace/#comments).
I think in the case of Toyota, a user of the social network may have to realize that the instant messaging may not be considered private, but “quasi-public”. Especially if the dealer or factory is involved in the communication. Perhaps users of the network shouldn’t expect the same level of privacy that they would get while having a private conversation with a friend. Others may not agree, but I’m almost certain these might be issues that will be raised in the years to come.
While I generally am a fan of social media and think that it is a great way to communicate and generate business, I can see some problems with Toyota’s approach. As mentioned in the blog, this technology may distract drivers and cause safety concerns. Also, I do not like the idea of drivers relying on technology to help them maintain their cars and drive properly. Driving requires skill and practice, neither of which can be replaced by sensors and voice commands.
The “Toyota Friend” sounds a lot like OnStar with a social networking feature embedded within it and thus raises similar privacy concerns. An ongoing concern with OnStar among privacy advocates is whether OnStar can turn on the hands free calling mic in the car and record cell phone conversations or passenger to passenger conversations within the car. I wonder if this could also apply to Toyota Friend. For instance, would Toyota be able to eavesdrop on conversations between passengers by turning on the in-car mic?
Privacy issues regarding vehicles equipped with OnStar were raised a few years ago in the United States. Not only can OnStar be activated remotely and record conversations taking place in the vehicle, the service records everything you can possibly imagine. How fast you were going, where you’ve been, when you were there, how fast you were travelling, how many times you applied the breaks, etc. You can consider it Big Brother in your car.
Another issue raised was ownership of the information recorded from the vehicle. OnStar owns it, which means that the police, for example, can seize the information and use it against you. OnStar is not obligated to protect your privacy. One of their disclaimers was, OnStar may use the information to “protect the rights, property, or safety of you or others.”
Furthermore, information can be recorded even of vehicle users that do not subscribe to OnStar. If a vehicle has the software installed, it can activated remotely at any time. I’m almost certain Toyota Friend will have similar capabilities.
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