For a long time, cars were a symbol of freedom and independence. No longer. In its Zoe electric car, car maker Renault apparently has the ability to remotely prevent the battery from charging. And that’s more chilling than it sounds.
When you buy a Renault Zoe, the battery isn’t included. Instead, you sign a rental contract for the battery with the car maker. In a Zoe owner’s forum, user Franko30 reports that the contract contains a clause giving Renault the right to prevent your battery from charging at the end of the rental period. According to an article in Der Spiegel, the company may also do this when you fall behind on paying the rent for the battery.
This means that Renault has some way of remotely controlling the battery charging process. According to the Spiegel article, the Zoe (and most or all other electric cars) collect reams of data on how you use them, and send this data off to the manufacturer without your knowledge. This data tells the company where you are going, when, and how fast, where you charge the battery, and many other things besides. We already knew that Tesla was doing this with its cars since the company’s very public spat with a journalist who reviewed one of their cars for the New York Times. Seeing the same thing in a mass market manufacturer like Renault makes clear just how dangerous this trend is.
This sort of thing fits well into the dystopian picture which Cory Doctorow paints in his 2011 talk “The coming war on General Computation” (which you really must watch, if you haven’t already), where he argues that “we don’t have cars anymore, we have computers we ride in”. The question then becomes who is in control of this computer: You, the manufacturer, or someone else?
If there is a mechanism to remotely control what your car does, some will make use of this mechanism at some point. This could be the manufacturer, shutting down your car as you fall behind on the battery rent because you just lost your job, meaning that it becomes harder for you to find work. It could be the government, compelling the manufacturer to do its bidding. In his forum post, Franko30 predicts that at some point, governments may simply ask car manufacturers to block charging near controversial political events (e.g. a G8 summit), in order to prevent you from participating in demonstrations. Or it could be any random criminal out there, gaining access to this mechanism by bribing a Renault employee.
The only way out of this is to stay away from cars and other computers that you can’t fully control; and to build systems that put users in charge. At the Free Software Foundation Europe, we are empowering and supporting people who build systems where you, the user, are in control. Please help us with a donation.