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Black Boxes In All Cars: Government Mandate Raises Privacy Concerns

black boxes in cars

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You’re probably familiar with the airplane black box, but are you familiar with the automobile black box? The black box is also known as the event data recorder, or EDR for short. The device is about the size of a cigarette pack. They are generally placed somewhere on the vehicle floor, behind the steering column, or the car’s firewall.

The purpose of the EDR is to record crash data in the event of a car accident. It does so by recording items such as vehicle speed, engine speed, steering angle, brake action, throttle position, force of impact, and airbag deployment. The date and time of the crash are recorded. An EDR is not able to determine location, nor does it know who was driving the vehicle, and whether or not that person was distracted by a cell phone, a car radio or talking with a passenger.

General Motors is somewhat seen as a pioneer in the development of automobile black boxes. It was about 20 years ago when GM began including the technology in nearly all of its vehicles. The original purpose was to evaluate and improve safety equipment — especially airbags. The dual-stage airbag developed directly from learning how the standard airbag responded in a crash. The recent issue with Toyota’s “unexpected” acceleration was partly resolved by examining the black boxes of those vehicles.

GM’s technology grew in popularity over the 1990s and into the 2000s. Event data recorders are currently placed in over 95 percent of newly manufactured vehicles. That number almost seems like a natural evolution, similar to the manufacturer installation of seatbelts long before their mandate, and much longer than 49 states’ mandates to wear seatbelts at all times.

Enter the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the government body that gave us those seatbelt mandates. The NHTSA has recently proposed that EDRs be installed in all vehicles beginning September 2014. The per-vehicle cost of the device would be about $20 for the consumer; however, the overall cost to industry would be over $25 million. This includes technology improvements and assembly costs. The NHTSA also states the multi-million dollar cost will include “compliance” and paperwork, the two hallmarks of inept government bureaucracies and subjugation with which we’re all too familiar.

We know that attempts by the government to “fix” one problem often lead to a plethora of other problems, and the black box is no exception.

The first issue is that of surveillance. The technological barriers that once precluded this omnipresence have been eliminated. The weak wills of our politicians that once kowtowed to the insurance industry’s mandate for car insurance, are once again being lobbied. Proposals such as charging a motorist tax for number of miles driven dovetail quite well with a technological capability to track the distance you have traveled.

John Eidsmoe rights the faulty historical record and brings us back to the roots that made America great . . .

Consider also the hypocrisy of the NHTSA, as if we need to look very far. The same organization wanting to mandate the black box is eerily silent when it comes to mandates requiring the disclosure of the device in the car owner’s manual.

One of the biggest issues regarding the technology is whether or not the technology even works that well. We know that our fondness for the next big thing often leaves our expectation far beyond the reality. Consider the well-publicized case of Maine Gov. John Baldacci. Baldacci and his driver were involved in an accident where details of the crash were disputed, including speed and seatbelt use. The EDR, for example, recorded that the governor was not wearing a seatbelt, but medical examiners involved with care after the accident asserted that the sustained injuries were consistent with seatbelt use.

“We don’t want some poor person to be driving down the road at the speed limit, get hit by some crazy driver, only to be told by the police that their EDR says they were doing 95 because of some software bug,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in an analysis. “We need to have a very high level of trust in devices before we dispense justice based on them. It’s very difficult to write bug-free software, so this is a real concern.

NHTSA gives their assurance that black boxes will be used in a very narrow sense; however, the EDR’s voluntary use had already been narrow. A basic tenet of research is that you need not observe an entire data set to reach valid conclusions. That is also the case with the black box. Using the boxes on a very small subset of cars still ensures that safety research can effectively be carried out. Remember, this was the original intent of the EDR.

The ACLU says motorists should have concerns over privacy.

“The data on your EDR should belong to you — and be no more accessible to the police or anyone else without a warrant, or your consent, than the data on the laptop sitting on the seat next to you,” the ACLU said in an analysis.

One example of an abuse was an auto rental agency that used the device to track the speed of its renters and then charging them for these “violations.” Another is when Onstar reported that it would continue to monitor vehicle owners even after they stopped subscribing to the service. Onstar eventually backed off their proposal when some questioned their motivation.

It can certainly be argued that private businesses such as rental agencies and Onstar should be free to enter into such contractual agreements with their customers. The problem is when government enters the picture and mandates those once-voluntary agreements.

The technology is costly, intrusive, unproven and simply represents a bureaucracy unnecessarily seeking to maintain manic control and justification for its bloated existence.

The good news is that the NHTSA proposal is not a done deal. You can help by writing to your representatives and senators. You can also contact the NHTSA and the Secretary of Transportation to voice your displeasure.

Some of the best news is that citizen action can be done beyond the federal level. There are various laws among the states regarding the intrusiveness of black box information use. The black box that has traditionally been recognized to be owned by the vehicle owner has turned into a murky proposition.

It might well be worth your time to contact your state representative and state senator regarding this matter. This author has had some success having conversations via email with many state representatives regarding issues such as this one. Also, don’t neglect to contact your governor, lieutenant governor, and the state legislative transportation committee and its chair.

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