Sunday, December 9, 2012

Wait A Minute, There's A Black Box In My Car?

As the title suggests, there's a great chance your car has a 'black box' in it - a device that records both the driver's control of the vehicle, as well as the vehicle's over all performance and response.

ABC (and most other major news outlets) are reporting that this past Friday (Dec. 7th, 2012) the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing 'long-delayed' regulations on auto manufacturers to include event data recorders.

That might startle some people, but honestly, this isn't anything new.  The chances are good that if your car has an airbag, and was made in the late 90's or sooner that it already has an event data recorder of some type in it.  The earlier devices would constantly record the driver's input along with the cars reaction, just in case a crash were to occur.  If such an event happened the recorder would save the previous 10-15 seconds in memory allowing insurance companies and law enforcement to recall that data at a later date for analysis.  Did you really apply the brakes?  Was your seat belt fastened?  And why were you going 91 in a 65 anyway?

That last part about speeding is a shot at former NJ Governor John Corzine, who was injured in a car accident back in 2007 when an NJ State Trooper swerved "to avoid an out of control driver".  Last time I checked, it was easier to avoid people when you were going nearly 30 mph slower.  Moving on.

You've actually been able to voluntarily subject your driving habits to insurance companies for quite some time now.  Progressive is probably the most well-known insurance company offering such a service with their snapshot discount marketing campaign, but there are countless others offering literally the same thing.  From what I've heard, the people that have used those little snitches have fared very well - if they were able to curtail their driving habits for a time.

Further understanding these devices is something most people aren't interested in.  Most of the consumer-interest groups are hollering that it's an invasion of privacy, some even going so far as to say that the government snuck these boxes in our vehicles to spy on us.  I get a good laugh at people who think privacy still exists - but I'll take play devils advocate here for a moment.

So, let's say for a moment that your car has been black-boxed since 1995, and that the government knows your every move.  They know how fast you were going, if you tried to stop before rear-ending that school bus, and whether or not you were coming from home or work.

Ok, so when does the government retrieve all that data?   Very few cars have satellite transmitters and/or hard drives to store the mountains of information the car acquires every second.  In fact, almost no cars currently have the capability to do that in real time, comparatively speaking.  The way these boxes work is by saving the info for about 10-15 seconds before an incident occurs, otherwise the information is discarded after about a minute or so (assumption).  You can't pop open your car's computer and try to prove you weren't speeding.  But imagine if you could.  Then imagine cops could use it against you too.

Oh, wait - the government can already track your movements whenever it wants to via your cell phone?  So can most clever hackers who understand how the internet and GPS tracking works (if they really wanted to)?  What's that you say, they've been able to do this for over a decade?  Right.  Sure, they need a warrant to do that under most circumstances.  At least they do if they're going to tell you about it.

In case you were wondering if your car has event data recorder (EDR), you can click this sentence and browse the PDF supplied by Harris Technical Services. That's the most recent and up to date source I could find - leave a comment if you've found something more accurate, I'll happily replace it.

Over all I think the most important thing to realize here, aside from privacy being about as real as Dragons these days, is that sometimes big brother does something good.  EDR's exist not only for insurance purposes, but because the information acquired just before an accident is invaluable to the engineers that are responsible for making your car as safe as possible.  Understanding that the brakes were applied, and subsequently failed under the strain is important - and because that information was acquired via the EDR those brake can be examined post-crash and potentially altered in either a recall or future versions.  Those changes and that insight might save someone's life and prevent another crash.


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