This Car Can Tell Police When You Speed

A little black box showing up in cars records your every move.

Sept. 26, 2008 — -- Remember this guy's name -- Scott Weires -- because I think he's a new American hero.

Weires, an attorney who lives in Florida, is apparently something of a car nut and, like most of his peers, he fell in love with the new 2009 Nissan GT-R. Enough in love that he ordered one.

In case you haven't heard about the GT-R, it is basically an ICBM tipped over on its side. It's just an absolute screamer of a car -- 480 HP, 0-60 in a reported 3.2 seconds -- and even at the $82,000 Weires paid for his Super Silver version (Nissan just bumped up the price by seven grand), it is still one of the world's best automobile performance buys.

So you can understand why Weires wanted one of these Ultimate Rice Rockets and plunked down the money in advance.

And then something amazing happened: Suddenly, after years of dreaming about the car after he first saw the concept design, and after months of waiting in line, Weires suddenly canceled his order.

Why? Because he found out that the GT-R is going to have tucked away deep inside and attached to its chassis a black box similar to the ones we always hear about after airplane crashes. Yeah, that's right: an electronic data recorder (EDR) that keeps track of everything from air-bag sensors to throttle controls to engine performance gauges.

Worse, at least to Weires, was that the GT-R contained an even more sophisticated version of EDR called a "Vehicle Status Data Recorder" (VSDR) -- this little baby not only activates when a crash is imminent, but runs all the time.

Think about that for a moment, and then think about your driving history.

Dude, I live in Silicon Valley, the land of the California Rolling Stop, the ignored speed limit signs and the place where the Rice Rocket was invented. And, in this land of automotive scofflaws, I am the guy who a friend once described as "driving like I just robbed a bank."

I have done things with cars that make me burst into sweat just recalling them. And if you are a red-blooded American male -- or, from what I've seen lately, an American teenage girl -- your driving history is probably very similar to mine. And you can understand why a sports car enthusiast and lawyer like Weires might object to having a driving behavior monitor strapped beneath his seat.

The automobile makers tell us not to worry, that these devices are only there to identify design weaknesses in the car so that those problems can be improved in future models. According to AutoWeek magazine, Nissan says that the VSDR in the GT-R does not record sounds or images but "always records and stores vehicle-operating data between periodic inspections, which can assist and be used for servicing, diagnosing and performing warranty repairs."

It was that last part that made Weires jumpy -- and understandably so, once you picture the scenario where the Nissan dealership refuses to honor the warranty on your engine because you over-revved it twice last Thursday.

But I think there's a lot more to worry about. Right now, carmakers also see EDRs and VSDRs as a way to protect themselves in product safety lawsuits. And law enforcement folks understandably like the idea of showing up at an accident scene, plugging in their laptop and downloading information on the final moments before the crash: Did the driver brake? Veer? Why did the side air bags not open? Etc.

It also sounds pretty benign, even useful. But unlike Weires, I'm a technology guy -- and I have a very acute sense of how seemingly harmless new technologies have a tendency to metastasize into something far nastier and, usually, end up invading our privacy or diminishing our freedoms. And, perhaps due to my own driving history, the story of Weires and his black box had sirens going off in my head.

Think of the worst possible scenarios, and whatever you come up with has a good chance of happening. For example, you know those random checkpoint stops that the police set up every year around the holidays to catch drunks. I've never been a big fan of them, mostly for civil liberties reasons, but like most people I endure this little inconvenience for the perceived larger good.

But what about a checkpoint where the cop walks up, plugs his laptop into your car and then tickets you for going over the speed limit three times last week? Put up some "smart" speed signs that send out signals to your car's black box and it would be simple to make the comparison. Like that one?

How about this -- because the black box also records the forces, such as yaw, on the car, the cop could also check the number of times you overstressed the car's suspension and arrest you for reckless driving. Oh, did I mention that there is nothing to keep the black box from recording your conversations in the car, your movements, the places you visited, etc., etc. Drive into the wrong neighborhood and you may void your car insurance -- and do so in real time when your black box gains a wireless "voice."

The car companies and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration assure us that even if they were to gather this information, they would never, ever use it for the wrong reasons. Sure, just like Google promises to never look up your identity and to throw out all search records every six months. Just trust them -- even though, by their very behavior in all of this, the automakers and the NHTSA have already shown that they don't trust you. Oh, did I mention the small print in the owner's manual that says all of your car's black box info belongs to you … except when requested by a court order? I'm sure that makes you feel all safe and warm inside.

So, the solution is to just not buy a Nissan -- right? Well, no. In fact, most U.S. carmakers have already, or are about to, install EDRs. If you've got On-Star in your car, you certainly already have it. And if a car has an EDR, a new federal mandate requires that it monitor 30 different data points by 2012. Take a Ball-peen hammer or a jumper cable to your car's black box and you will be breaking the law.

The good news is that some carmakers have no plans to install EDRs. For some, such as Kia, it's a cost consideration on their low-priced cars. More interesting is at the other end of the spectrum, where Mercedes and other German cars don't carry black boxes because they are deemed to violate privacy laws.

Shouldn't that be some kind of clue? When the Germans -- who, after the Gestapo and the Stasi, know a little something about surveillance and the loss of privacy -- ban these devices, why should we let them into our daily lives?

I'm predicting a run on old cars very soon. Maybe it's finally time to buy that '67 GTO and laugh as I pass all those suckers whose powerful new cars refuse to let them exceed the speed limit.

This is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.