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Aaron Gold

"Black Boxes" are coming — except they're already here (w/ poll)

By December 10, 2012

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The news over the weekend has been abuzz with the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)'s call for event data recorders -- often referred to as "black boxes", after the recorders in aircraft -- to be standardized in all cars and light trucks starting September 1st, 2014. Needless to say, this has created a lot of commentary, especially over the issue of privacy.

First things first: According to NHTSA, about 96% of new cars that would be required to have EDRs under the new proposal already have them. The safety systems of modern cars rely on several input streams to decide if, when, and how to deploy safety systems such as stability control and airbags. Automakers have been installing EDRs to record this data for years, and NHTSA has had guidelines for the types of data to be recorded since 2006. The data has been used to provide a more accurate picture of what happens in a crash, which has led to better safety equipment -- but it also has legal implications, as EDR data has been used as evidence in court cases around the world.

What kind of data is tracked, and when is it recorded? EDRs can collect several streams of data, including vehicle speed, steering wheel and pedal position, lateral and longitudinal acceleration, and whether or not the seat belts are buckled -- all information that is required by the car's safety systems. EDRs do not record a vehicle's location, although some cars do use built-in GPS receivers to supplement this data (that's how OnStar can send help to your car after a crash). Unlike aircraft EDRs -- which continuously record 20 minutes or more of data -- automobile EDRs generally only record information during the crash "event", as well as the condition of the vehicle a few seconds before. Airplanes also have cockpit voice recorders; no such thing is being proposed for vehicles.

Alarmist reactions aside -- I've already seen a bunch of comments about this being yet another attempt by President Obama to invade our privacy and spy on us -- there are some legitimate legal and ethical issues. The first is: Who owns the data on the EDR? NHTSA's proposal is that the owner of the car owns the data. But if you have a crash and your insurance company totals the car, does that mean they own the data -- and can they go back and deny your claim because of it?

The issue of what can be done with the data is the real question here. Several states already have statutes limiting how the data can be used, but black box data can be (and has been) used to prove drivers both guilty and innocent. In the EDR, we have an unbiased witness whose testimony is not clouded by emotion. That can be good news or bad, depending on which side of the court case you are on.

Of course, there are potential abuses of the technology. Right now, EDRs only record a few seconds of data, but it's entirely possible that could be expanded to minutes, hours, or even years. Some worry that EDRs could be used to track a person's movements. I'm not too worried about that; you can do the same with cell phone or even credit/debit card records. But I am concerned that some state somewhere will decide to use EDR data as a form of speed enforcement. On the other hand, I see the huge promise in analysis of collected crash data as a way to learn more about how real-world accidents happen -- and how to provide them.

What do you think? Should EDRs be mandatory? What are the upsides and the downsides? Vote in our poll and share your thoughts in the comments section. -- Aaron Gold

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