You’ve undoubtedly heard of the “black box” that is standard equipment on commercial airplanes—it’s a device on board that records everything that happens during a flight so that, in the case of an accident, officials can figure out exactly what happened and who was at fault.
Did you know that most auto manufacturers are now installing black boxes in cars—and not just commercial cars and trucks, but private vehicles, too? Not only that, but the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has mandated that, by 2014, all vehicles be equipped with a black box, which will record all kinds of data about your driving.
Is this an important technological advance that will make cars safer, or is it just one more way in which we are losing privacy in a world where our every move is increasingly being recorded somewhere? Can the information in black boxes be used against us, and what are our rights?
How and Why Are Black Boxes Used?
The way black boxes—more officially known as electronic data recorders (EDRs)—work is that they tap into the electronics of your car and record data about everything from whether your seat belt is fastened to how fast you’re going and whether you are accelerating or braking. EDRs vary in the way they track and store data. Some only activate during a crash and record through the end of the crash. Others record continuously, overwriting data every few minutes. Some store data locally, which must be retrieved after the fact, while others, such as GM’s OnStar, may transmit data to another location—for example, if your airbags deploy.
At this point in time, about 60 percent of cars are equipped with black boxes, going all the way back to American models from 1994. The purpose of them, according to advocates, is for safety research; they provide specific, objective data in the event of an accident that may not be available even from eyewitnesses or the drivers involved, which can help reduce future accidents and even improve vehicle performance. They can also help pinpoint safety problems in cars that need to be recalled. Many believe, however, that the use of these devices raises serious privacy issues.
Although we’ve become more used to having our every GPS check-in, Google search, and Twitter update tracked, many people have a big problem with the idea of their car collecting and storing data about how, and even where, it’s driven. It’s one thing for car manufacturers to be able to tell whether it was their error that caused a crash so they can fix it, but what about other agencies who might be interested in how and where you drive, such as insurance companies or the police? How, if at all, will we be able to control the data that is collected about us while we’re traveling around on public streets? Is the safety factor enough to counter the threat of Big Brother in our vehicles? Furthermore, is the data admissible evidence in court?
At this point in time, allowing EDR data as evidence in court varies by state, but it has already been used to penalize reckless drivers. A Florida court recently convicted an individual for vehicular manslaughter—a conviction made possible by the data in the black box. The defendant appealed, claiming that he should have been able to block police from examining the EDR data, but the Florida appellate court threw out the case.
Numerous drivers have been both convicted and exonerated thanks to evidence collected by car EDRs. In many cases, accidents happen without witnesses and police may have a difficult time recreating exactly who did what. It’s not uncommon for people to willfully or unintentionally misrepresent what happened, as well, which is why the data can be an important addition to evidence in a trial.
For now, the data belongs to the vehicle’s owner and police require a warrant to access it. Insurance companies, however, have been known to buy back a totaled car after a bad accident, likely for the purposes of analyzing fault, which can affect payout. It’s important for car owners to be aware that the information is there and can be used against them.