Digital Dashboards: Protected Trade Secrets?

Sep 22, 2023

By Kerri Cebula, Associate Professor of Sport Management at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

In 2020, Formula E unveiled a new camera angle designed to bring fans closer to the racing action, the Driver’s Eye camera.  A tiny camera is embedded in the driver’s helmet at the driver’s eye level and allows a viewer to see what the driver sees during a race.  Formula 1 tested the technology in 2021 and rolled it out to certain drivers in 2022.  Other International Automobile Federation (FIA) sanctioned series have followed in introducing the Driver’s Eye camera.  In 2023, NASCAR became the first North American series to run the Driver’s Eye camera.  Race fans immediately noticed an issue, the driver’s digital dashboard was blurred, obscuring not just the information on the dash, but some of the view as well.

Neither NASCAR nor its teams gave an official reason for the blurring, but NASCAR on Fox analyst Clint Bowyer stated it was because teams had proprietary information on the dashboard with the implication that the teams did not want the information on the dash falling into the hands of their rivals (Skiver, 2023).  The information provided on the dashboard includes information such as water and oil temperature and pressure, battery voltage, revolutions per minute (RPMs), lap times, and fuel pressure.  This information could be considered similar to a football team’s playbook as other race teams could make an educated guess on what the team with the driver’s eye camera will do based on the information on the dashboard.  So, is the information on the dashboard protectable as a trade secret or is it more in line with a football team’s playbook and not protected as a trade secret?

A trade secret is defined as “any information that can be used in the operation of a business or other enterprise and that is sufficiently valuable and secret to afford an actual or potential economic advantage over others” (Restatements (Third) of Unfair Competition, § 39).  Three factors used to determine if proprietary information is actually a trade secrets are (1) does the information have an economic value; (2) is the information not generally known or readily ascertainable; and (3) has the owner of the information made efforts to maintain secrecy (Cebula, 2021).

This information on the dashboard does have an economic value to the teams.  In NASCAR, prize money is awarded at the end of every race and the amount of money is dependent on the team’s place of finish.  NASCAR teams are known to monitor the television broadcast, so if the information on the dashboard is displayed to the other teams, the other teams could use that information to their advantage in calling pit strategy and it could alter the place of finish and therefore the amount of prize money won.

The problem is the other two factors.  First, the information cannot be generally known or readily ascertainable by others.  In general, the information available on the dashboard, such as RPMs, pressures, and temperatures, are also relayed between the drivers and their crews over the team radio.  In NASCAR, radio communication between the driver and their crew is public; anyone, including fans and the other teams, can monitor communications.  This information is also relayed by the television and radio broadcasts.  It is both generally known and readily ascertainable.

Secondly, has the owner of the information has to make efforts to keep the information secret.  Since the information is relayed between the driver and the crew over an unsecured radio transmission, the teams are not making an effort to keep the general information a secret.

One could make the argument that the information on the dashboard is similar to a football team’s playbook or hand signals in baseball.  Formula E treats the information on the dashboard similarly to a playbook.  The Formula E dashboard is blurred when the Driver’s Eye camera is used, but Formula E states that the blurring is for competitive reasons.  Teams could gain a competitive advantage if they know the battery level or the tire pressure of the other team.  The difference is that radio communication between a driver and their crew in Formula E is not made public and the teams and Formula E are not treating the dashboard information as proprietary information.

Cebula, K. (2022).  “We Don’t Want Our Competitors to See It”: Protecting Race Car Engines as a Trade Secret.  Marquette Sports Law Review, 32(1), 79-96.

Restatements (Third) of Unfair Competition, § 39 (Am L. Inst. 1995).
Skiver, K (2023, February 19).  Drivers eye cam: why NASCAR blurred dash of new angle featured during Daytona 500, angering viewers.  The Sporting News.

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