Your Car Key Knows More About You Than Your Mom Does

Unless, that is, you are very close with your mom. Welcome to the data-driven, score-keeping, real-world, competitive game that is a gadget-packed modern life.

The other day I was going through the necessary rigmarole of getting my car serviced when I learned about yet another surprising way the details of your life can be revealed. That's because mechanics working on the most recent car models know a whole lot more about your car than you’ve told them. They can tell the number of accidents its been involved in, how hard the car’s been driven, and even how often the car’s exceeded the speed limit. This information is neither held on a central database, nor is it a part of any police record. No, the details are all contained in the car key.

Every time you turn the key to start your brand spanking new car, it activates a database that quietly gathers all kinds of information, including behavioral data. This information is extremely useful for dealers wanting to know just how well the car’s been treated. There’s no point in concealing just how fast you’ve driven it or how many times the airbags have been activated. The key will reveal all, and you can be sure that the valuation of the vehicle will be commensurate with the data the dealer has accessed.

It would be naïve to assume that this kind of data gathering will be restricted to the humble car key. It will not be long before anything and everything we interact with can potentially gather data. (In some industries, of course, this is already well under way.) Imagine the tales something as simple as a toothbrush will be able to tell. One need only cast one’s mind back to those little red pills children were given that revealed all the spots that the toothbrush had neglected. Some kids chewed them, some swallowed them whole, while others spent a fair amount of time brushing off the red stains. Above and beyond teaching kids to brush their teeth properly, the exercise was fun.

It’s been rumored that toothbrush manufacturers are planning to release an entirely new generation of products. These products all contain mini processors that will enable the toothbrush to evaluate the way you brush your teeth. The end result will not be red stains, but points calculated.

In due course, everything we touch will become just another prop in the giant computer game of life. To some extent, this is already the case with frequent flyer points. Ratchet up the air miles and you can exchange points for items as diverse as gift cards, iPods, and coffee makers, or you can simply cash in your points to take another flight.

Before long, we could be earning points by driving economically with an eye out for the environment. So, every time we cut the engine and coast down the hill, we might earn eco points. Ford already keeps track of your driving with the plant icon on the dashboard. The better your driving, the more leaves appear on the plant. However, you’d be mistaken to believe that the game will stop at your car’s dashboard. The next generation car key will keep track of your overall driving performance, and will then issue an appropriate number of points. These points will undoubtedly play an important role in determining the value of your vehicle when it comes time to sell. 

In an interview I once conducted with Jesse Schell, a professor of game design at Carnegie Mellon, he postulated that even the public bus is likely to turn into a game—the more often you take it, the more points you’ll receive. The accumulation of bus points could be redeemed in a system of tax relief, a reward in recognition of your support of the environment.

Gamification has proven to be a serious motivator. I recently visited a woman in North Carolina who was so very proud of a recent achievement. She’d managed to lose more than 10 pounds in just two weeks,  something she’s never achieved before.  "How did you manage to do it this time?" I politely asked. She dragged me off to the bathroom and pointed to her scale. To my untrained eyes, it looked like any other bathroom scale. But this one was different. It connected online, automatically storing her weight. Furthermore, it automatically tweeted her weight to a group of friends, all competing for the greatest weight loss.

According to data gathered by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 72% of American households play computer and video games. And women over the age of 18 are the industry’s fastest-growing demographic. They represent a sizeable portion—42%—of all gamers. The average computer gamer is 37 years old, and they have been playing for at least 12 years.

Computer games extend well beyond the home. For the past decade, the military has prepared soldiers for battle by using game simulators. Doctors, pilots, and race-car drivers all make extensive use of games in their training. Games are already extending beyond their specialized disciplines. They’ve moved into classrooms, living rooms and, yes, even bathrooms.

A leading programmer explained that the reason games are so appealing is that they are flexible enough to adjust to our own level. Then they challenge us to move beyond that, taking it up a notch at a time. The good news about all this is that games can take a tedious activity and make it fun. We can strive to brush our teeth so that every nook and cranny is covered. Exercise on the Wii has taken off in kindergartens and retirement villages. The flipside of this is that as we become increasingly dependent on games accompanying our most tedious chores, we are increasingly becoming a nation of gamblers. The more we’re exposed to gaming, the more we play. And we’re all getting hooked.

It may not be much fun when our fast driving record stands in the way of getting the price we want to sell the car but, overall, the news is positive. Just imagine new and innovative games to help us save the environment. Perhaps entire households will compete against each other to see who’s saving the most energy.

The big question is: Are you ready to play?

[Image: Flickr user Denis Gustavo]

Read more by Lindstrom: The Truth About That Mysterious, Sudden, Overwhelming Chocolate Craving


Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, was published in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at

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  • Wize Adz

    A nit to pick:
    As a backyard mechanic and IT man, I understand that the data collection that cars do is in the engine / powertrain control computer.  It logs some of the data that it can see, which include things like the last few seconds of gas-pedal-position, brake application, and so forth.  I also understand that some ECUs make a special effort to preserve this data in case of an airbag deployment, and that it has been used in court -- much like a black box on a commercial aircraft.
    The 10-year-old chipped Ford key that I have in my pocket isn't big enough to hold any significant amount data using 2002 technology.  The key does contain an RFID chip that's used to prove to the engine computer that the key really is in the car.  It does contain a unique identifier, and there's every reason that the ECU could log it.

    Personally, my biggest freedom/privacy concern is whether or not law enforcement needs a warrant to interrogate my computer.  It's as much of a search as reading the hard disk drive in my laptop and looking for evidence -- both my laptop and my car's ECU are computers that I own.  I can easily think of cases where this kind of a search would be appropriate, and where it wouldn't.  The basic foundations of our constitution and justice system must continue to be applied to this kind of electronic search and evidence.

    When it comes to deciding whether or not you've violated the terms of your car's warranty, I care, but it's hard to summon righteous anger about it -- it's an ongoing tension between the customer and a vendor, and I can think of lots of non-electronic ways to strain the warranty.  Since I like to tinker with my car, I actually prefer cars that are out of warranty so I don't have to worry about it.

    Anyway, this article makes some claims that, while plausible, aren't backed up by my hands-on exposure to this technology.  If RFID keys *are* doing the data collection (rather than merely being recognized by the car's under-the-hood computers), then this is a bit of information worth an entire article, explaining how and why.