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You may not know it, but your car probably has a “black box” that records at least 15 types of data. Now the federal government wants them in most new cars and trucks. Some say it’s an invasion of privacy; others say it’ll  improve safety. Here’s an interesting story from the Associated Press that explains it all:

By JOAN LOWY
Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) —  Many motorists don’t know it, but it’s likely that every time they get behind the wheel, there’s a snitch along for the ride.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Friday proposed long-delayed regulations requiring auto manufacturers to include event data recorders — better known as “black boxes” — in all new cars and light trucks beginning Sept. 1, 2014. But the agency is behind the curve. Automakers have been quietly tucking the devices, which automatically record the actions of drivers and the responses of their vehicles in a continuous information loop, into most new cars for years.

When a car is involved in a crash or when its airbags deploy, inputs from the vehicle’s sensors during the 5 to 10 seconds before impact are automatically preserved. That’s usually enough to record things like how fast the car was traveling and whether the driver applied the brake, was steering erratically or had a seat belt on.

The idea is to gather information that can help investigators determine the causes of accidents and lead to safer vehicles. But privacy advocates say government regulators and automakers are spreading an intrusive technology without first putting in place policies to prevent misuse of the information collected.

Data collected by the recorders is increasingly showing up in lawsuits, criminal cases and high-profile accidents. Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray initially said that he wasn’t speeding and that he was wearing his seat belt when he crashed a government-owned car last year. But the Ford Crown Victoria’s data recorder told a different story: It showed the car was traveling more
than 100 mph and Murray wasn’t belted in.

In 2007, then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was seriously injured in the crash of an SUV driven by a state trooper. Corzine was a passenger. The SUV’s recorder showed the vehicle was traveling 91 mph on a parkway where the speed limit was 65 mph, and Corzine didn’t have his seat belt on.

There’s no opt-out. It’s extremely difficult for car owners to disable the recorders. Although some vehicle models have had recorders since the early 1990s, a federal requirement that automakers disclose their existence in owner’s manuals didn’t go into effect until three months ago. Automakers that voluntarily put recorders in vehicles are also now required to gather a minimum of 15 types of data.

Besides the upcoming proposal to put recorders in all new vehicles, the traffic safety administration is also considering expanding the data requirement to include as many as 30 additional types of data such as whether the vehicle’s electronic stability control was engaged, the driver’s seat position or whether the front-seat passenger was belted in. Some manufacturers already are collecting the information. Engineers have identified more than 80 data points that might be useful.

Privacy complaints have gone unheeded so far. The traffic safety administration says it doesn’t have the authority to impose limits on how the information can be used and other privacy protections. About a dozen states have some law regarding data recorders, but the rest do not.

“Right now we’re in an environment where there are no rules, there are no limits, there are no consequences and there is no transparency,” said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group. “Most people who are operating a motor vehicle have no idea this technology is integrated into their vehicle.”

Part of the concern is that the increasing computerization of cars and the growing communications to and from vehicles like GPS navigation and General Motors’ OnStar system could lead to unintended uses of recorder data.

“Basically your car is a computer now, so it can record all kinds of information,” said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers. “It’s a lot of the same issues you have about your computer or your smartphone and whether Google or someone else has access to the data.”

The alliance opposes the government requiring recorders in all vehicles.

Data recorders “help our engineers understand how cars perform in the real world, and we already have put them on over 90 percent of (new) vehicles without any mandate being necessary,” Bergquist said.

Safety advocates, however, say requiring data recorders in all cars is the best way to gather a large enough body of reliable information to enable vehicle designers to make safer automobiles.

“The barn door is already open. It’s a question of whether we use the information that’s already out there,” said Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Automotive Safety.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that requiring recorders in all new cars “will give us the critical insight and information we need to save more lives.”

“By understanding how drivers respond in a crash and whether key safety systems operate properly, (government safety officials) and automakers can make our vehicles and our roadways even safer,” LaHood said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been pushing for recorders in all passenger vehicles since the board’s investigation of a 2003 accident in which an elderly driver plowed through an open-air market in Santa Monica, Calif. Ten people were killed and 63 were injured. The driver refused to be interviewed and his 1992 Buick LeSabre didn’t have a recorder. After ruling out other possibilities, investigators ultimately guessed that he had either mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal or had stepped on the gas and the brake pedals at the same time.

When reports of sudden acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles cascaded in 2009 and 2010, recorder data from some of the vehicles contributed to the traffic safety administration’s conclusion that the problem was probably sticky gas pedals and floor mats that could jam them, not defects in electronic throttle control systems.

“Black box,” a term for a device whose workings are obscure, is most widely used to refer to flight data recorders, which continually gather information about an aircraft’s operation during flight. Aircraft recorders, by law, are actually bright orange.

Some automakers began installing the recorders at a time when there were complaints that air bags might be causing deaths and injuries, partly to protect themselves against liability and partly to improve air bag technology. Most recorders are black boxes about the size of a deck of cards with circuit boards inside. After an accident, information is downloaded to a laptop computer using a tool unique to the vehicle’s manufacturer. As electronics in cars have increased, the kinds of data that can be recorded have grown as well. Some more recent recorders are part of the vehicle’s computers rather than a separate device.

Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., has repeatedly introduced legislation to require that automakers design recorders so that they can be disabled by motorists but has been unsuccessful in his efforts.

A transportation bill passed by the Senate earlier this year would have required that all new cars and light trucks have recorders and designated a vehicle’s owner as the owner of the data. The provision was removed during House-Senate negotiations on the measure at the behest of House Republican lawmakers who said they were concerned about privacy.

“Many of us would see it as a slippery slope toward big government and Big Brother knowing what we’re doing and where we are,” Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who is slated to take over the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in January, said at the time. “Privacy is a big concern for many across America.”<QA>

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Online:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration http://www.nhtsa.gov

Electronic Privacy Information Center http://www.epic.org

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Comments

10 Comments

  1. David Stubblebine

    If we choose to travel on public roads, our behavior is public behavior. Our driving behavior is not subject to any rights of privacy on public roads. If you want privacy, stay home.

    December 7th, 2012 12:40 pm

  2. Dr hook

    I was warned this was in our future some years back. Soon after the black boxes come out , you will begin receiving tickets in the mail for speeding running stop signs etc. Anyone remember Orwell’s 1984 ,” Big brother Is watching You.” All the politicians have to do is change the law to issuing the citation to the car and not the driver. The registered owner will be responsible.

    December 7th, 2012 3:15 pm

  3. Bob D.

    Yes, there are, but the law has to catch up with the technology and limit the data gathering to just what is essential. If not there is nothing stopping the installation of devices which can monitor much more than we would like.

    December 7th, 2012 3:45 pm

  4. Jeff T

    Government surveillance of law-abiding citizens is simply wrong on so many levels, and that sort of thing has no place in the United States of America.

    December 7th, 2012 4:05 pm

  5. mike abel

    Big Brother tell me when I’m right or wrong , follow me everywhere i go , JUST NOT IN THE BATHROOM OR BEDROOM ,, RESTRICTIONS DO APPLY ..void if i break the law anywhere

    December 8th, 2012 2:38 am

  6. Rick

    It is a very slippery slope. Next the data will be available to your auto insurance company to determine your rates. Potential employers now routinely pull your credit report when applying for a job, next their request your cars black box info to pass judgement on you as well, when will all this stop?

    December 8th, 2012 6:34 am

  7. Les A.

    I agree David S. Safety will always win out over privacy in my book. I wonder…if others that are so concerned with government intrustion would feel any different if they or one of their relatives was involved in an accident that was the fault of other driver and couldn’t use the information from black box to prove?

    December 8th, 2012 8:54 am

  8. Kenneth Briggs

    at that rate , your ticket is in the mail . so do not spead bhckel up because the cam is watching you .

    December 8th, 2012 4:08 pm

  9. fmmt47

    Uh, excuse me but when and where I drive is my business not the governments….you idiots that want to trade freedom for safety and security deserve neither.

    December 9th, 2012 10:19 am

  10. t

    Why no “opt out” function? Because it’s their will, and not yours that counts and that’s being enforced. (Insurance companies and gov’t agencies.) “For your own safety” is just their cover.

    December 9th, 2012 12:47 pm

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