A Black Box for your Car

May 26, 2011

Most people are probably familiar with, or have at least heard  of, the use of automatic flight data recorders (sometimes called “black boxes”) in commercial aircraft.  These devices record key items of aircraft performance data, such as air speed, altitude, and control settings, and are designed to be rugged enough to survive a crash.   Data collected by these devices has proved to be of enormous value in analyzing the cause of aircraft crashes, and in designing mitigation strategies.

Now, according to a post on the “Autopia” blog at Ars Technica, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] is considering requiring similar event data recorders on all new cars.   The underlying motivation is the same as with aircraft: to provide information that can be used to analyze a crash and the events leading up to it.

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.

One aspect of this that may surprise some readers is that many cars already have data recorders of some sort.  General Motors, for example, has been installing data recorders on all vehicles with air bags since the early 1990s.  In at least one case, data from these systems was used to identify a defect in some Chevrolet cars that caused the air bags to deploy at low speeds, and a recall of the affected models was launched.  However, there are problems with the current systems, some technical, and some legal and procedural.

One problem with the current technology is that vehicle manufacturers use a hodge-podge of different proprietary devices; there is no standard for the dsta items collected, nor for how they are stored.  There is also a trade-off between the desire to collect more data, and the need to avoid overloading the relatively modest processing capacity of the cars’ on-board computers.   There is also a need, in some cases, to improve the design of data recording systems so that they are more able to survive a crash intact.

The procedural and legal issues are a bit thornier.  At present, the rules on who can access the data, such as they are, are determined by state law.

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 [Prof Dorothy Glancy of Santa Clara Law School] said. “Lots of data just gets accessed at the crash scene or the tow yard, as I understand actual practice.”

The situation with cars is special, because cars are generally owned and operated by  individuals as a “freelance” affair, in contrast to other modes of transportation (airlines, railways) where there is a business organization selling the service.  I don’t know of any significant objection to flight data recorders in aircraft on privacy grounds, but there is some potential for abuse of event recorders in personal vehicles.  (Suppose, for example, that coordinates from GPS were among the data recorded.)

Still, there are very legitimate safety uses for recorded data, and it seems reasonable to establish some common standards for data collection and  recording.   There are trade-offs to be made; we can only do our best to make them on a reasonable basis.

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