Black boxes in new cars.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Every article I’ve read presents it as a nanny-state intervention. Almost as though saving the lives of thousand of car-users each year is somehow anti-car.
On the other hand, people are willing to forgoe their 4th amendment protections just to be able to drive a few miles over the speed limit.
There are 35,000 US car deaths a year. Who knows how many are preventable? I guessing that most of them are caused by law violations.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will later this year propose a requirement that all new vehicles contain an event data recorder, known more commonly as a “black box.” The device, similar to those found in aircraft, records vehicle inputs and, in the event of a crash, provides a snapshot of the final moments before impact.
That snapshot could be viewed by law enforcement, insurance companies and automakers. The device cannot be turned off, and you’ll probably know little more about it than the legal disclosure you’ll find in the owner’s manual.
The proposal looks to some like a gross overreach of government authority, or perhaps an effort by Uncle Sam, the insurance industry and even the automakers to keep tabs on what drivers are doing. But if you’re driving a car with airbags, chances are there’s already one of these devices under your hood.
Automakers have long installed electronic data recorders in their automobiles, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has since late 2006 required automakers to tell consumers about the devices. That federal rule also outlines what information is recorded and stipulates that it be used to increase vehicle safety.
Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering a proposal that would “expand the availability and future utility of EDR data” — in other words, a possible requirement that all automobiles have the devices. The proposal is expected sometime this year. A separate discussion would outline exactly what data would be collected.
Both proposals follow rules adopted in 2006, and how they affect you depends upon where you live and what data points it records. How much it will affect you in the future may depend on a new set of standards that spell out exactly what data is collected and who can access it.
An Incomplete Record
On August 17, 2002, two teenage girls in Pembroke Pines, Florida, died when their vehicle was struck by a Pontiac Firebird Firehawk driven by Edwin Matos. The girls were backing out of their driveway; investigators accessed the vehicle’s data recorder and discovered Matos had been traveling 114 mph in a residential area moments before impact.
Matos was convicted on two counts of manslaughter, but his lawyer appealed the admission of the data recorder evidence, arguing it may have malfunctioned because the car had been extensively modified. The attorney also argued the evidence was based on an evolving technology. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the conviction, however, establishing precedent in that state that data gleaned from event data recorders is admissible in court.
There are two important facts to note in this case. First, Matos was driving in Florida, one of 37 states with no statutes barring the disclosure of such data. While car companies initially claimed ownership of the data, courts eventually ruled that it belongs to vehicle owners and lessees. No federal laws govern access to black box data, and state laws eventually clarified how much data other parties could access.
“The state statutes, starting with one in California, arose out of consumer complaints about insurance companies getting the data without the vehicle owner even knowing that the data existed or had been accessed,” said Dorothy Glancy, a lawyer and professor at Santa Clara Law with extensive experience studying issues of privacy and transportation.
In most of the 13 other states, however, Matos’ black box data still would have been available to police officers armed with a warrant.
“Law enforcement generally has access to the data,” Glancy said.
The second important fact is that, though the court denied Matos’ appeal, the question of the data’s validity remained. Most manufacturers currently use proprietary systems that require specialized interpretation, and many individual event data recorders do not survive crashes intact. Other courts have ruled against the admission of the data.
Setting a Standard
The lack of uniformity concerns Tom Kowalick. He chairs the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers P1616 Standards Working Group on Motor Vehicle Event Data Recorders, one of three panels aiming to set universal standards for event data recorders (EDR).
“Until recently, there has been no industry-standard or recommended practice governing EDR format, method of retrieval, or procedure for archival,” Kowalick said. “Even for a given automaker, there may not be standardized format. This lack of standardization has been an impediment to national-level studies of vehicle and roadside crash safety.”
Standards proposed in 2008 would ensure that data once available only to automakers IS publicly accessible. The new standards would make accessibility universal and prevent data tampering such as odometer fraud.
“It also addresses concerns over privacy rights by establishing standards protecting data from misuse,” Kowalick said.
The standards also propose specific guidelines and technology to prevent the modification, removal or deactivation of an event data recorder.
Those regulations would, in theory, make black box data more reliable than what is currently collected. But they also would prevent drivers from controlling the collection of information — information that they own.
“I am not sure why consumers would want a system in their vehicles that they could not control,” Glancy said.
For What Purpose?
Before shunning new cars and buying a 1953 MG TD to avoid secret tracking devices, it helps to see how the information gleaned from event data recorders is used.
General Motors has been a leader in event data recorder technology, installing them in nearly all vehicles with airbags since the early 1990s. It currently installs Bosch EDRs in all vehicles sold in North America. The technology has evolved and now collects as many as 30 data points, said Brian Everest, GM’s senior manager of field incidents.
“In the early ’90s we could get diagnostic data, seatbelt use and crash severity,” Everest said. “Currently, we can get crash severity, buckle status, precrash data related to how many events the vehicle may have been in and brake application.”
The newest vehicles also can determine steering input and whether lane departure warning systems were turned on.
That info is invaluable in determining how a car responds in a crash. With a vehicle owner or lessee’s permission, crash investigators with access to the data pass on the EDR records to GM, which can determine whether vehicle systems or driver error contributed to an accident. They also can discover what vehicle systems and technologies prevented serious injuries or death.
“It’s about trying to understand what a particular system’s performance did before a crash,” Everest said.
In addition to helping a manufacturer prevent future crashes or injuries, it can also help in defending an automaker against claims of vehicle defects.
“In a great many cases, we can use data to understand whether it had any merit to it or not,” Everest said.
Sometimes the information vindicates an automaker, such as in the case of Toyota’s recent unintended acceleration debacle. Investigators could look directly at vehicle inputs to determine what occurred in each case. In other cases — a problem with unintended low-speed airbag deployment in a 1996 Chevrolet Cavalier, for example — the data reveals a legitimate vehicle defect and leads to a recall being issued.
Safety In The Future
While automakers might like to examine every aspect of a crash, there comes a point where too much data would overload researchers and the relatively inexpensive computers used in vehicles. The last thing car makers — or consumers — want is to increase the price of a vehicle to pay for super-sophisticated event data recorders.
“We’re definitely supportive of additional data,” Everest said. “The drawback on parameters is that you want to understand how it would affect the system,” balancing the need for data with the computing power available from a low-cost EDR.
Other concerns involve law enforcement access to enhanced electronic data recorders or whether dealers or insurance companies could use that data to deny or support claims.
“It usually depends on state law whether they need a subpoena or a warrant,” Glancy said. “Lots of data just gets accessed at the crash scene or the tow yard, as I understand actual practice.”
Whether that information was accessed and interpreted by a trained professional would determine how it held up in court. Insurance companies’ access and use of the data would again be up to state law, said Glancy.
Several insurance companies contacted by Wired.com declined to comment on the issue, but Leah Knapp, a spokesperson for Progressive Insurance, offered that company’s policy. “Our position on EDRs is that we would only use that data in a claims investigation with customer consent or if we’re required to do so by law,” she said. Knapp stressed that manufacturer-installed EDRs are different than incentive programs run by insurance companies that offer a discount for customers who voluntarily install monitoring devices on their vehicles.
Though dealers have access to EDR records, Everest said he knew of no instance where the information was used to void a warranty claim by proving that a customer abused a vehicle.
“Automakers have a duty to warn vehicle owners about safety recalls and the like,” Glancy said. “But you would have to look at the particular warranty to see what would be covered and what would not.” Still, she said she’d “expect that they would” eventually be able to access such data.
It comes down to a balancing act between an individual’s right to privacy and automakers’ need for data to determine the cause of a crash, between the need for a robust reporting system and the computing power available, between state interests in protecting consumers and insurance companies. Whether that balance tilts in favor of drivers remains to be seen — but at least EDR standards ensure a level starting point.
The black box should come with medicinal narcotics because each have the ability to solve minor issues and manufacture problems that didn’t exist or otherwise inconsequential.
Sounds like a good idea so long as the government mandates that manufacturers install them with some universal standard. My only problem is if it’s illegal to remove them once installed, we should ultimately have a choice of what goes into our cars. Give people the choice, and watch how many don’t bother to remove it anyways… that’s the simple way to make it happen without the controversy.
Besides, I think our cell phones are getting closer to being handheld black-boxes everyday… so even bicyclists aren’t safe!
I don’t have a problem with it because I generally obey the law. If I am breaking the speed limit is only by a few mph and would not be clear cut enough to make me guilty of anything.
If you have a problem with the black box you don’t have to drive a car, simple enough. If you have a problem with your cell phone tracking you, you don’t have to carry a cell phone.
There was already a court case several years ago over someone driving a rental car 100 mph, and being issued a citation when he turned the car in. Much the same arguments as here. He lost.
Frankly, I don’t see much difference between having these and having a bunch of people with timing devices and clipboards sitting alongside public roads. That’s already perfectly legal.
If it’s a recording device, and doesn’t constantly upload information, like, say, my iphone, and the data is accessed in the event of an accident, I am totally in favor of such a thing.
What opponents of something like this must be missing is that such a device could just as easily vindicate a driver of wrongdoing as convict. That big old rightwing buzzword – “accountability”. Who wouldn’t want that??? Assuming you’re not getting in the car with the intent of breaking the law in the first place. I’m as much of a privacy freak as anyone out there.
Where in the Constitution does it say the (BIG) Government has the RIGHT to require auto manufacturers to install these devices!?! Allow these, and it’s a slippery slope, people!!!
(BTW, if it has to be explained that a statement is satire, is it still satire?)
Um, Big goverment requires that new cars have seatbelts, airbags, crash crumple zones, Tire pressure monitoring devices, etc… Basically everything that is on a modern car that was not on a Model T.
I do agree it is a slippery slope, but we have been sliding down that slope for a long time.
This is why Europe has many more fuel efficient cars than we do. We want our cars to be safe in the event of a crash. All of these safety standards add weight to the vehicles and make them less fuel efficient. They also make the cars more expensive.
I’m going to beat on the poor dead horse now, but, the U. S. Of A. spends zillions of $ on making cars safer for the driver, and spends <0 on improving the driver. Aaaaaaah! Fear big guvermint!
Btw, Almklm, got your Sat. Tire.
Big government owns the roads and therefor has a right to tell you how to drive, with what equipment, etc. As was pointed out earlier, if you don’t like it, don’t drive… a libertarian dreamworld wouldn’t have highways after all. I think edmonds is right, so long as it is only used in the case of an accident, what’s the problem (slippery slope aside). If it constantly reported information to the popo-smokey the bear-the man- the fuzz… it would be an invasion of privacy issue I think, regardless of whether it would save lives… ah well, I leave that for the legal scholars; all I know is what feels right in the gut and what makes me want to stock up on firearms.
this is ridiculous. another invasion of our privacy and the continuous creep of the police state. if they really cared about improving safety on the highways they would make a driver licence a challenge to acquire.
after all, isn’t driving a privilege? make it $1000 to APPLY to take the licence exam! maybe that would keep all the terrible drivers off the god damn highways. spying on us won’t make anyone a better driver.
I would be afraid that the parties involved in deciphering the crash data from one of things would blindly follow whatever it told them. Instead of doing real detective work in figuring out what happened (looking at skid marks, interviewing witnesses, etc.) they would take the word of this little black box as gospel.
Suppose the thing malfunctions and you’re wrongly convicted of something you are not guilty of. My car has plenty of very simple electronic devices that malfunction as it is.
I would not want to have to legally defend myself from some haywired electronic gizmo and some judge saying “Whelp, it saidja done it, so ya mustuv.”
Add to that an automobile company who has an interest in marketing the infallibility of their car components and you have another situation of little joe-normal being squeezed between the legal system and corporate bigfoot.
I’d think they would only take the black box’s data as gospel if it’s shown to be very reliable. Yes, if something very reliable eventually gets it wrong, people will likely believe the bad data, more so than testimony from an eyewitness (which is notoriously unreliable).
But this is true of anything that’s very reliable. Should we not allow the world’s top experts to testify because people might put lots of trust in what they say, and it will still be wrong on rare occasions?
“I’d think they would only take the black box’s data as gospel if it’s shown to be very reliable.”
That’s exactly what I would be afraid of happening. Even very reliable is still not reliable. I just don’t think someone’s future should be decided by a little black box.
As long as the world’s top experts are unbiased, that is they don’t have any interest in whether the box is working or not, then I think they should absolutely testify.
But doesn’t that same argument apply to any technology? What if there’s video of an accident? Should we prohibit such video, since the camera might have suddenly sped up or slowed down at the moment of the accident, giving us the wrong idea of how fast everything was happening? (Naturally the big camera-making company will claim their camera doesn’t do that.) The police might see the video of an accident and think they know what happened, without even investigating the (admittedly unlikely) possibility that the camera malfunctioned. Best to prohibit them, then?
Or what if a radar gun measured a speeding car? It could be wrong too, no matter how often it’s been calibrated.
If you think we should permit video and radar gun evidence in court, but not the evidence of black boxes, maybe you could explain which property of black boxes, not shared by these other devices, makes different treatment appropriate.
I’ve always wondered why they don’t catch people speeding on the turnpike via their tickets. There’s a time getting on and a time getting off, do the math and give people who are speeding a ticket!
@jeg could you imagine the pile of cash obtained if the turnpike enforced the speed through the ezpass stations?
The property of black boxes not shared by the video camera or the radar gun is that they are separate from the car involved.
The owner of the car could tamper with the device. A previous collision could alter the way it gathers information.
I would assume that radar guns used by the policed are calibrated several times in their life span. Would the black boxes be calibrated/checked when you have your vehicle inspected? Would the mechanic (knowingly or unknowingly) alter the way the black box gathers data.
Also, a radar gun and a video camera present their data in easy to understand terms. A number for the radar gun and a video for the camera.
It seems like these black boxes would be recording data in a format that may have to be read by yet another machine and deciphered by an expert. Who is to say that the expert would not make a mistake, or be biased.
A camera and a radar gun are 3rd party objects, while these black boxes are objects of the party involved in the incident. These things are different for the same reasons that testimony from occupants of vehicles involved in a crash are treated differently than testimony from 3rd party witnesses.
I feel roughly the same way about mandating black boxes in cars as I do about mandating bicycle license plates. Sure, there are cases when it might be helpful, but without compelling reasons otherwise I’d err on the side of no regulation.
Besides, until we start enforcing the laws we already have that are intended to prevent crashes, I’m un-enthused about making more laws to aid in forensics after the crash has occurred.
Most modern cars with airbags already record data to help reconstruct an accident. Personally, if I were laying dead there on the road, run down by some car, I would trust a data recording device more than the biased recollection of another driver having a severe case of windshield vision.
Also, “big brother” will still need a warrant to access whatever data your car is recording.
There is always going to be subjectivity. I was a witness to an accident on a PAT bus once. Another witness on the same bus, and I, both submitted written testimony. Turns out we each had different interpretations of where exactly we were when it happened, and that discrepancy was what got the driver off scot-free, even though the exact location had very little to do with the accident itself (driver braked, throwing passenger to the floor, backwards).
As to the data collected, I am concerned that too much attention will be paid to minutiae (e.g., was he here, or 4″ left of that? was he here then, or 0.04 seconds later than that?) and not to the bigger picture.
backward? usually if a bus stops short, standing passengers fall forward.
Passenger was climbing the steps toward back of bus. One foot on the steps, one in the air, driver stomped on the brakes (not seeing a would-be passenger at the curb until passing him). She went flying, landing flat on her back. She was just unlucky enough to have this happen at the first bus stop downstream of where she boarded.
Had the bus had a black box, esp measuring accelerometer readings, it would have picked up on the driver doing this repeatedly. I had to run 100 feet down Perry Hwy after the bus on the same trip for the same reason.
I’ve been after Port Authority for years to install black boxes in its buses for precisely the same reasons. PAT cannot fix a problem it does not know exists, and in this case, the problem didn’t exist because there was no evidence the driver did anything wrong, despite a lawsuit and two written eyewitness accounts saying that he did.
Why wasn’t the passenger holding on to the rails? What if the driver had to brake suddenly for some other reason? It’s not clear that a “black box” would have resolved anything in this case.
There are certainly better solutions to our problems than putting people under constant surveillance.
The reason you don’t get speeding tickets on the Turnpike is because, many years ago, the legislature decided that the risk of someone getting a ticket because the clocks were off between tollbooths was simply too great. Roughly the same ‘reasoning’ was applied for the ban on local police forces using radar devices (locals just wouldn’t know how to use such a complicated device correctly).
If you think about it, using tollbooths times makes a lot of sense, with one tweak: instead of handing out tickets, just make speeders pay an mph surcharge. If you’re really in a hurry you should be willing to pay for the convenience. Say $10 per each mph over the limit?
Yes, I know, speeding is dangerous and should be discouraged anyway.
Salty, the black box would have established that the operator was a consistently poor driver and one hopes would have led to his dismissal. Which I suspect would provoke the drivers’ union to oppose them.
Ahlir, I can think of a few other reasons there is no enforcement based on tollticket timestamps. Mainly that such enforcement would be impartial, and the legislature wouldn’t want that.
It would seem to me that making yet more laws to govern our actions, in a society where we are not held accountable for our actions, is pointless (or maybe I’m just being cynical).
If the black box was treated as some sort of automated performance review machine or otherwise used for disciplinary purposes, I would 100% oppose being subjected to that as a bus driver. If it were only to be used to aid in an accident investigation, I’d have a lot less of an issue with it – but I’d want some pretty definite criteria about when it could be used. There’s already precedent for this for airlines, and I think that’s a reasonable compromise.
The other side of black boxes on buses is that they can be used to reward good behavior. With speed adherence, accelerometer readings, on-time performance, etc., tracked and used to give a few extra bucks for the drivers who do well, and not used other than to protect against fraudulent or annoyance lawsuits, that might go down a lot better.
Also, “big brother” will still need a warrant to access whatever data your car is recording.
In any kind of accident situation, a warrant would be pretty easy to get–you need only “probable cause.” Take some smashed pieces of something from the accident to a judge and bingo, there’s your warrant.
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