By 2015 all cars must have black boxes if a transportation bill before Congress passes, as it’s likely to. The goal is to help investigators understand more about crashes. Safeguards are built in to protect your privacy, or so the bill says. Meanwhile, it’s something of a moot point: Cars have had black boxes for more than a decade and 85% of cars currently built have a black box installed. You may want to brush up on the technology and also what privacy rights you have. Like, does it record you singing along, badly, while driving?
The in-car event data recorder (EDR) is the cheaper cousin of the airplane black box, which is actually orange. The car’s EDR is about the size of a pack of playing cards, has its own non-volatile memory, and is designed to withstand a crash and follow-on impacts. If an automaker opts to install an EDR now, there are rules for what’s recorded in 2013 models and likely more rules for 2015. The EDR mandate is one part of a big highway construction and highway safety bill called MAP-21, or Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. It’s likely to pass since it contains highway construction funds.
MAP-21 also sets out privacy rules that appear to favor you. “Any data in an event data recorder… is the property of the owner… or lessee,” the bill says. You can consent to let your dealer see the data for repair purposes, but that’s probably a non-issue because the same information can be stored elsewhere, by the car, outside the EDR. High-level accident investigators (not the police) can see the data if it’s scrubbed so there’s no personally identifiable information passed along. Emergency responders can access the data via an on-board data port to “facilitate” medical assistance. (Would they privately share the impact speed with the investigating officer? Hmmm.) But it’s also available with a court order, which suggests a warrant might be issued in the case of a fatal accident and a zealous law enforcement agency might decide to seek the data in a range of lesser cases: any personal injury accident or speeding.
MAP-21′s privacy provisions may conflict with the rights automakers have already assigned themselves. If you browse the owner’s manual of a recent car (start at the back and work forward), if there’s an EDR fine print section, you’ll see wording that says, and we’re paraphrasing, but not by much: “This is your car and the data belongs to you. Unless the cops ask for it. Or in case you decide to sue us.” In a civil lawsuit between two sides in a car crash lawsuit, it appears you have to turn over the EDR information if the other side asks and a judge agrees. Less clear is what happens if, oops, something happens to the EDR after the accident but before the search warrant arrives. With current and pending durability requirements for the black boxes, it will be hard to argue that it was destroyed in the crash.
What’s recorded? Think of it as a data snapshot of the few seconds before and after a crash. The device has to be able to “capture and store data related to motor vehicle safety covering a reasonable time period before, during, and after a motor vehicle crash or airbag deployment, including a rollover.” This data includes speed, throttle and brake position, seat belt usage, and how long it took the airbags to deploy. Some automakers, such as BMW, include more crash-sensing data, such as the location of the impact (a side impact might require more medical assistance than a front impact). They even use the data to estimate the crash severity and suggest the level of emergency response.
Some insurance companies offer carrot-and-stick discounts that lower your rates if they can install a different black box that records when, how fast, and sometimes where you drive, in order to give or take away insurance discounts. These are essentially always-on, always-tracking recorders. To many motorists they smack of big brother. But they also provide a financial lifeline for a driver with a lousy record; it may be the only way he or she can get insurance. Concerned parents (as well as jealous partners) have the ability to locate a family car if they have an OnStar-equipped GM vehicle withFamily Link, a $4-per-month service. OnStar vehicles have the ability to report other things such as speed but currently Family Link is just a locater. It wouldn’t take much more memory to record the day’s driving information, but so far that’s a place automakers don’t want to go. Porsche does offer an option that lets you pull trip information onto a USB stick for helping in tracking mileage for reimbursement or tax deductions.