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 is 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 (161 kph) and Murray was not 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 (146 kph)on a parkway where the speed limit was 65 mph (104 kph), and Corzine did not have his seat belt on.
There is no opt-out. It is 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 ( via phys.org ).