Is That a 'Black Box' in Your Car?

By 2012, many U.S. cars must store certain pieces of data.

February 11, 2010, 11:06 PM

Feb. 22, 2010— -- Just a few miles east of Los Angeles International Airport, a Chevy Tahoe barreled its way through a residential neighborhood on a Sunday evening. The driver lost control of the SUV, slid into the opposite lane and plowed head-on into another car, killing the driver, a 64-year-old woman.

The Tahoe flipped over and caught fire but the 40-year-old driver was able to get out and flee. When he turned himself in the next morning, he was arrested on suspicion of vehicular homicide with gross negligence.

California Highway Patrol investigators analyzed the scene of the August 2009 accident and found physical evidence on the road of the vehicle's high speed. But officials also had another tool to use in their investigation, a device within the car itself. The SUV's Event Data Recorder (EDR), part of the air-bag system, had captured its exact speed -- 81 mph -- acceleration, braking and other data in the five seconds leading up to the crash.

The EDR is known commonly as a black box and has been installed in some vehicles since 1996. About 60 million vehicles now have them and 85 percent of new cars this year will come standard with a "black box," according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates.

The agency does not mandate that manufacturers install these data recorders. But NHTSA is requiring that cars with EDRs store at least 15 kinds of data and have the information easily accessible by Sept. 1, 2012. Automakers, including BMW, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota, want to delay that for a year.

"People have a tendency to think of a 'black box' as they think of a flight-data recorder," Officer John Grindey of the Highway Patrol's Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team said. "They think everything they say in the car is being recorded. None of that information is in there."

Some drivers may not know they have an EDR, although automakers typically disclose that information in the owner's manual. Retrieving the data, however, requires a special software to collect speed, engine rpm, brake and throttle data, among other things.

Data Is Useful to Law Enforcement

"With the name 'black box,' everyone thinks it's some sort of Big Brother technology," said Bill Rose, product manager at Bosch Diagnostics, creator of the Crash Data Retrieval System software. "But, really, it's information that originally was stored in the airbag modules so that airbag companies and manufacturers could develop the product."

Still, that data has proven useful to law enforcement, insurance companies and accident reconstruction companies as well. They use Bosch Diagnostics' software, which supports vehicles made by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. They are the only companies that have licensed their proprietary technology to allow a data download. If a crash investigator wanted to access the data from a Toyota, Honda or BMW, for instance, they would have to send the "black box" to the manufacturers to get the information.

The technology has raised concerns from the beginning. In a column about the EDR in 1999, the New York Times' William Safire wrote, "I don't want a car that rats on me."

At issue is who has the right to access the data in your car. Generally, state law dictates who can access the information. Law enforcement will, therefore, usually obtain a warrant or driver consent to access EDR data. But the question of privacy still remains.

"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 Seek Delay in Implementation

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."

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