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Battery-operated electric vehicles, a trail-blazer in the automotive industry amid rapid climate change, are catching the fancy of an increasing number of customers. Production of e-scooters has started in several states including Tamil Nadu. But news reports of accidents involving e-scooters has clouded this picture. Balwant Singh of Guwahati bought an e-scooter on March 26 this year.
His son who was driving the vehicle met with an accident. Consequently, Balwant Singh attributed the mishap to a snag in the vehicle and held the automobile company concerned responsible for this, asking for the e-scooter’s operational runtime data.
The operational runtime data provision is a new service introduced by e-scooter manufacturers. A manufacturer stores in the cloud storage the data obtained through sensors about the functioning of various parts of the vehicle. Consumers can get the data on demand, say the companies.
A month after the Guwahati accident, the company concerned released a detailed denial of its responsibility for the accident, reportedly backed up by operational runtime data from the e-scooter. However, the data was not shared with Balwant Singh.
The incident sparked considerable debate not just on social media with newspapers also covering the controversy for weeks. Even before this particular incident, instances of e-scooters manufactured by various companies exploding/ catching fire during charging or at other times has made news. These accidents caused serious injuries and even deaths in many instances. In the Guwahati case, the report given by the company has also raised serious concerns about individual rights and customer security.
Basically, the new-gen e-scooter is similar to smartphone. As done in a smartphone, an e-scooter’s fundamental operations are regulated through software. All data about the vehicle’s operations are kept in cloud storage. But companies don’t give customers a clear-cut picture about this
A look at what exactly operational runtime data of an e-scooter is will help to understand these concerns.
Basically, a new-gen e-scooter is similar to your smart phone. As in the latter, an e-scooter’s fundamental operations are regulated through software and all data about the vehicle’s operations are kept in cloud storage. However, there is little about this in the customer manual; teeming with technical details on the e-scooter’s operations, the booklets do little to explain to customers what their e-scooters are made of.
So let’s take a peak into the computer network fundamentals of an e-scooter.
There are four important features of an e-scooter’s fundamental design:
1. Like a smart phone, an e-scooter has a sensor through which operational data about the vehicle’s speed, braking, engine temperature and GPS are obtained and sent to the cloud storage. To facilitate this operation, a SIM or another Internet connectivity device is fitted into the vehicle.
2. The operational data thus collected is sent to cloud storage and repository management and then to a master cloud storage which is supervised by the manufacturer.
3. Maintenance management server: Generally, while buying an e-scooter, the customer is also sold a maintenance contract for one year or for a certain renewable time-frame. During renewal of contract, the e-scooter’s software will automatically be upgraded. If the maintenance contract is not renewed, the software upgrade will not happen. Commands from the maintenance management server will go to the cloud storage to upgrade the software or not to upgrade, depending on whether the contract is renewed.
4. Analytics server: This is the brain of the e-vehicle industry. This is used to write reports and conclusions, making the best of data and information kept in the cloud storage under the control of the manufacturing company.
In the Guwahati case, it is this analytics server which has supplied the e-scooter manufacturer the necessary data for its report on the accident.
Ignorance is not bliss
Generally operational data of e-scooters are obtained through sensors, obviously without customers’ permission. In western countries, this will be taken as an impingement on individual freedom. But in India, given the lack of awareness, this has not created a problem for the manufacturers.
Controversies have been raging over the commercial use of basic data about customers – the data collected by Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook etc. Hurt by the controversies, Apple and Google have been taking initiatives to hand over the right of collecting data over to the users themselves.
But, there is a difference between the data collected from social media and Internet and those from the digital gadgets and instruments that the customers are using. For instance, the basic cloud storage and service providers such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft etc. have clear-cut provisions in the contracts they clinch with big corporates on what kind of user data can be collected, how the expenditure for the work is categorized and what kind of reports on use can be prepared. In these contracts, industry-wise standards are set very categorically and hence neither of the two sides will be affected and there’s no scope for controversy. This holds good for individual users too.
All data collected digitally from customers of the new, glossy electric vehicles without their knowledge remains in the custody of the manufacturers. This amounts to infringement of the right to freedom and privacy
In yet another example, there are regulatory bodies in aviation and information and communication sectors – DGCA and TRAI. So, there is a general belief that if there are problems such an accident in these sectors, they will be transparently and honestly solved.
Falling between ministries
But, in the segment of the new-gen electric vehicles, all data collected digitally from the customers without their knowledge resides with the manufacturers. There are no standard rules and regulations nor regulatory bodies on collection of individual user data through electric vehicles. The role of the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) is confined to research and reporting on vehicles’ operational upgrading and drivers’ security. It is just a consultant; not a regulatory body to monitor and streamline the operations of the automotive sector.
Though the Union government and the states have formulated separate policies on the automotive sector, they are silent on this problem. The Bureau of Energy Efficiency functioning under the Energy Department, which is implementing several schemes for propagation of use of electric vehicles, does not speak about this problem either as is the NITI Ayog, which has issued a set of guidelines for the e-vehicle sector.
Though awareness of the infringement of the right to privacy in the e-vehicle sector is quite low globally, there have been discussions at the levels of government and industry in the west. The data collection function is not in the hands of the manufacturers but is entrusted to exclusive organizations. Hence, manufacturers are forced to follow guidelines framed in this regard. Unlike in India where in the absence of debates on the issue, e-vehicle user data remains in the custody of the manufacturers.
To return to the tragic instance of the fatal accident of Balwant Singh’s son, neither he nor the government can check the veracity of the report submitted by the company, or access the operational data of the vehicle. It is this lack of transparency in the company’s data, which has brought into question the company’s credibility.
The companies involved in manufacture of e-vehicles should undertake research on accidents involving their vehicles and the means to avoid them. Based on the findings the companies must manufacture and market totally safe e-vehicles
Another aspect of the lack of transparency relates to accident insurance claims. If the operational data of an e-scooter is shared with an insurance company which has insured the user’s life, the medical service provided to the user after accident is likely to be affected. The data may be used against the user in such a way that he may not get insurance money.
Need for regulatory framework
Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, recently issued a warning over e-vehicle accidents. This warning should ideally be followed up by the government formulating rules on the security of e-vehicles users. An automotive regulatory mechanism should be created to ensure that the e-vehicles’ operational data are available freely and shared among the manufacturer, the end-user and the insurance companies concerned. Till this happens, chances are that the e-vehicles’ operational could be misused to the detriment of the user.
The operational data must be entrusted to a credible public organization so when accidents happen, the data are made available to the user and other stake-holders.
These worrying teething problems in the burgeoning e-vehicle industry should be addressed at the outset to prevent serious breaches of use safety and privacy for the future of the automotive industry.
(The author is a mechanical engineer, who has 20 plus years experience in automotive and aerospace domain, having worked with the industry in the areas of automation of manufacturing and engineering processes.)
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