"They are built into the cars," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy group. "So the general idea is how much surveillance should you be subjected to? Depending on how they're configured, what you end up with is the possibility of the boxes recording the entire travel history of your car and therefore of you."
Privacy advocates also question the reliability of the devices and the extent to which they are tamper-proof. Addressing that is the goal of a working group at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., the world's largest technical professional society. The group devised the first global EDR standards in 2004, referenced by NHTSA in its regulation, and is now working on an amendment to include consumer protection against data tampering and odometer fraud.
Automakers are not part of this discussion and have been at odds with the standards group since 2003 when manufacturers left the initial working group, according to Thomas M. Kowalick, chair of the institute's working group. Most recently, GM, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing 11 automakers, have filed petitions seeking a year delay to the 2012 deadline for NHTSA regulations.
In an e-mailed statement, Wade Newton of the alliance wrote that the EDR implementation deadline should be extended because it was pegged to still-evolving car models. "For example, current models are being retained in some instances and it won't be possible to re-engineer the EDRs in those vehicles," he wrote. "So, without an extension of the implementation date, those EDRs may have to be switched off."
NHTSA will consider this and other petitions in its final rule for the EDR, a technology that belies the size of this small, rectangular device.
"If you clap your hands, that time is what the EDR will collect. It's measured in milliseconds," said Kowalick, who has written six books on the technology. "If you want to know about the defects in cars or what happened after a crash, this is the technology that will tell you."