Automobile Black Boxes

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2311, 2005-03-18, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 20-21) and their website.

Being able to hop in one's car and get away from it all has long been a part of the American lifestyle. But that freedom from monitoring may be about to run out of pavement, if the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) keeps heading in its current direction. In early August of 2004, the NTSB recommended that all automobiles on the road be outfitted with "event data recorders" (EDRs), and typically referred to as "black boxes".

Similar to the flight data recorders found in commercial aircraft, automobile black boxes are intended for recording information about the vehicle while it is in motion. Specifically, these devices record a car's wheel speed, brake and accelerator pedal positions, seatbelt status, and other data. Their primary purpose is to continuously feed this critical data to other onboard components, such as the vehicle's antilock braking system (ABS), traction control, and supplemental restraint system (SRS), so that those components can function properly.

For instance, if a car's black box detects that the wheel speed has suddenly declined from 55 mph to 5 mph, and yet the brake pedal was not pressed, it will know that the car is colliding with another object, and that the car's driver — still traveling at 55 mph — is about to sail through the front windshield (if the seatbelt is not in use) or into the steering column. Under such circumstances, the black box would immediately inform the SRS, which could deploy the airbag.

However, the information collected could later be used in the case of an accident or an alleged traffic violation, and not necessarily to the benefit of the car's driver. For example, in Nassau County, N.Y., in a case involving a three-car accident, the judge ruled as admissible the evidence gleaned from the black box of one of those cars. The recovered data revealed the car's speed, throttle position, and use of brakes during the moments just before impact.

This is not the first instance of these electronic data recorders having their day in court, nor will it most likely be the last — particularly if auto insurance companies, accident investigators, road safety advocates, and the NTSB have any say in the matter.

Baby Black Box On Board

Various groups and government bodies strongly support the use of black box data for accident analysis and reconstruction, beyond the need for feeding that data to a car's other components — which most if not all commentators agree to be necessary and warranted. These advocates argue that, after a traffic accident, the most reliable information on the movement and operation of the individual vehicles, is to be found in those unbiased data recorders.

That Nassau County case well illustrates the value of vehicular data in facilitating justice: The car in question, a Chevrolet Corvette, was traveling almost 130 miles per hour, as the driver raced against a friend. When it slammed into a Jeep Cherokee, it tore that vehicle in half, killing both occupants. Now the black box's digital contents will help to convict the deadly driver and his friend with second-degree murder. Otherwise, the prosecutors would be forced to rely upon witnesses' accounts.

In view of how useful the recorded information can be, it makes sense that a growing number of automobile insurers, consumer groups, and medical professionals are pushing to make the boxes required equipment in all new vehicles. They simply want the data, with little concern as to whether or not you the consumer have agreed to disclose it, or even if you realize that your car is currently recording the details of your driving habits.

Does your car have a black box? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there are already 30 million of these devices on the road, and approximately 90 percent of new car models will be outfitted with them. General Motors and Ford claim that they have printed disclosures in the owner's manuals, and yet, in a recent study, most people could not find those disclosures in the fine print, even after being told that they existed.

If your car does have a black box, just how accurate is the information that could be used against you in court? For example, if your car is sliding on ice while you have your foot on the accelerator, with the wheels spinning, that onboard electronic witness-for-the-prosecution might later report that you were going 130 mph towards the other car, when in fact you were only sliding at 30 mph.

Big Brother Is Watching You Drive

Privacy and safety experts are quite worried over the potential misuse and even criminal abuse of any data recorded by automobile black boxes, and later stored in supposedly private corporate and government databases. Some privacy advocates are speaking out. As just one example, the website of Privacilla.org offers sample text for letters that citizens can send to Congress, expressing their concern and disapproval of any mandatory black boxes.

The Nassau County case mentioned above hints at this and future problems. In this case, the police officers removed the sensing module from the defendant's wrecked car after it was in their possession, but before they had a search warrant.

In addition, there are few if any laws to help protect the driver's rights to privacy. This could get worse as law enforcement officials see more instances of black box data proving invaluable in analyzing car accidents and prosecuting suspects. Yet some state legislatures are pushing back, such as California's, which passed a law requiring disclosure that the device is in each vehicle, and requiring the vehicle owner to give permission for any of the data to be downloaded.

Rental car companies could be equally interested in tracking your driving habits, and even selling that information to other companies, such as car insurance firms. After all, they own the car that you are renting, and they own the data that you generate as you drive their rental car in a hurry, late to a meeting in an unfamiliar city.

Given the government's seemingly limitless appetite for learning and storing its citizens' personal data, how long will it be before they can justify forcing automobile manufacturers to allow law enforcement to read black box data of all vehicles on the road, in real time? The government would then know your exact whereabouts and speed, whenever you are in your car. This could easily be justified (or, rationalized, depending upon one's view) as needed for vehicle safety on public roads.

If and when we reached that point in the continual monitoring of US citizens, the only time you'll be able to truly get away from it all, will be when you visit another country — assuming that their government is not quite as "advanced" as ours.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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