All New U.S. Cars May Require a “Big Brother-like” Black Box by 2014

Flight data recorders, commonly known as “black boxes,” have been a standard feature in airliners since the early 1960s. More recently, various companies have started offering apps and dedicated devices that essentially serve as black boxes for cars, keeping a record of the vehicle’s parameters and location when involved in an accident.

NHTSA logoNow, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing a new rule that similar devices become mandatory in all new light passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. by September 1st, 2014.

According to the NHTSA, an estimated 96 percent of model year 2013 passenger cars and light-duty vehicles already come equipped with event data recorders (EDRs), although their owners may not be aware of it.  Automakers began installing them in the early 1990s, but they weren’t required to disclose their existence in the car owner’s manual.

ACLU-American-Civil-Liberties-Union-logoThe American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wants that to change, with consumers being better informed about the EDR’s presence. Increasingly, black box data is being used in criminal cases and lawsuits, including those involving high-profile individuals.

Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray initially said that he wasn’t speeding and that he was wearing his seat belt when he crashed a government-owned car last year. But the Ford Crown Victoria’s data recorder told a different story: It showed the car was traveling more than 100 mph and Murray wasn’t belted in.

In 2007, then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was seriously injured in the crash of an SUV driven by a state trooper. Corzine was a passenger. The SUV’s recorder showed the vehicle was traveling 91 mph on a parkway where the speed limit was 65 mph, and Corzine didn’t have his seat belt on.

Investigator inspecting a black box taken from a 2008 Toyota Avalon involved in a fatal 2009 car accident in Euless, Texas
Investigator inspecting a black box taken from a 2008 Toyota Avalon involved in a fatal 2009 car accident in Euless, Texas

Unlike the aftermarket devices, which are aimed chiefly at providing proof that a driver wasn’t at fault in an accident, the factory-installed EDRs are intended more as a way of collecting data regarding which actions lead to accidents, and how a vehicle’s safety systems respond when an accident occurs. That data could then be used by automakers or government agencies, to help make roads and vehicles safer.

NHTSA officials say expanding the use of the data recorders in all new cars and trucks will help them better assess the cause of accidents. The boxes have heretofore recorded a vehicle’s speed, its location and total number of passengers at the time of an accident. There will now be a requirement that 15 types of data be recorded.

Some of the EDR-recorded data that the NHTSA hopes to analyze includes things such as vehicle speed; whether or not the brake was activated before a crash; crash forces at the moment of impact; engine throttle level; deployment timing and readiness of air bags; and whether or not the vehicle occupant’s seat belt was buckled. EDRs are triggered by an impact or air bag deployment, and only save data from the moments leading up to and during an accident.

Privacy advocates say they will support the proposal as long as certain measures are adopted. For instance, they don’t want the data in the black boxes to be used by marketers.

Lillie Coney
Lillie Coney

“You should not think of this as being an opportunity to sell data to auto-insurance companies for risk evaluation. That’s a real possibility. Data is valuable,” Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Wired. “Right now we’re in an environment where there are no rules, there are no limits, there are no consequences and there is no transparency,” she said.

In 2006, the NHTSA established a set of data collection standards for the devices. The new proposal calls for automakers not only to follow those standards, but also to provide a commercially-available tool for copying that data from a vehicle – and for EDRs to be required equipment in any passenger vehicle weighing less than 8,500 pounds (3,856 kg). The agency couldn’t access or use the data without the vehicle owner’s consent, however.

Part of the concern is that the increasing computerization of cars and the growing transmission of data to and from vehicles could lead to unintended uses of recorder data.

Gloria Bergquist
Gloria Bergquist

“Basically your car is a computer now, so it can record all kinds of information,” said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers. “It’s a lot of the same issues you have about your computer or your smartphone and whether Google or someone else has access to the data.”

Big Brother Is Watching 02“More importantly, we need to clearly establish the principle that the data on these black box computers belongs to the person who owns the car,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote. “When you buy a car, you also buy the many computers that, increasingly, run that car. The data on your EDR should belong to you—and be no more accessible to the police or anyone else without a warrant, or your consent, than the data on the laptop sitting on the seat next to you.”

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