It's looking very likely that a bill in Congress that will make mandatory the use of "black boxes"— more formally, Event Data Recorders (EDR) — will become law soon. These are little computers clad in rugged casings that record data from your car's various sensors and computers to use for accident investigation and, very likely, other uses.
There's lots of privacy concerns around this new bill, and lots of questions as to exactly what that little boxy black snitch is snooping on. Plus, what about the voluntary black boxes some insurance carriers are offering? Let's see what we can clear up.
1. It's pretty likely your car already has an EDR.
GM was the pioneer here, starting to install them in the late '90s, and by 2005 a number of marques (GM, Ford, Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Suzuki) were putting them on everything. According to the NHTSA, about 91.6% of cars currently have them. Here's a list. Notable exceptions are Audi and Mercedes-Benz, but this new law will change that.
If you're like many of us Jalops, myself included, you may be driving a car that predates OBD-anything, so, unless you have a very technologically adventurous stalker, you likely don't have one. The law does not appear to require retrofitting the devices to, say, your King Midget.
2. It's not a tracking device.
These black boxes are not GPS devices, and do not track where you're going. So your drug-prostitute-deep fried food secret habits are still safe, as long as you don't get in a wreck with your hookers and crack and mouthful of fried cheese.
3. Okay, what do these things record?
Great question, disembodied voice. And a surprisingly tricky answer to find. Most articles just mentioned the bill requires 15 separate data points to be recorded, without listing what they are. While more data can be recorded based on manufacturers' own desires, these are the 15 data points that would be required by the new law— well, this list has 17, so maybe there's a couple others:
- Change in forward crash speed
- Maximum change in forward crash speed
- Time from beginning of crash at which the maximum change in forward crash speed occurs
- Speed vehicle was traveling
- Percentage of engine throttle, percentage full (how far the accelerator pedal was pressed)
- Whether or not brake was applied
- Ignition cycle (number of power cycles applied to the EDR) at the time of the crash
- Ignition cycle (number of power cycles applied to the EDR) when the EDR data were downloaded
- Whether or not driver was using safety belt
- Whether or not frontal airbag warning lamp was on
- Driver frontal airbag deployment: time to deploy for a single stage airbag, or time to first stage deployment for a multistage airbag
- Right front passenger frontal airbag deployment: time to deploy for a single stage airbag, or time to first stage deployment for a multistage airbag
- Number of crash events
- Time between first two crash events, if applicable
- Whether or not EDR completed recording
As you can tell, most of this data is designed to aid in accident investigations, to help determine who was at fault, if any laws were broken, and to determine driver input compared to car performance to aid in investigations like the Toyota unintended acceleration incidents.
4. Who owns this data?
This is actually the best part about this new law, because it clearly states that you, the car's owner, owns the data. I don't think any of us are thrilled about having these things in our cars, but if it's going to happen anyway, a law like this is needed to protect car owners. I'm a firm believer that any and all data your car generates should be the easily-accessible property of the owner. As the IIHS says on their site about this: