Putting a black box in every new car

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is pushing for all new cars and light trucks to have devices that collect data that can help determine what happened in an accident.

You know those “black boxes” in airplanes? They collect data and are used to determine why a plane crashed?

Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- a regulatory body in D.C. -- plans to to require that all new cars and light trucks are equipped with them starting in September 2014.

While everybody calls it a “black box", it’s official name is event data recorder or EDR for short. And about 90 percent of cars today already have one, says Jim Harris, a traffic accident expert. He says the proposed regulation has specific requirements.

The EDR is running all the time, but it’s only required to keep the “5 seconds” of data before a crash. It also tracks, “how fast its going, steering wheel angle, accelerator pedal position, throttle position brake application, things of this nature as far as driver input,” saysHarris.  He adds EDR's don’t track location because its only interested in determining what happened in a crash.

But that’s doesn’t mean the proposed rules stop them from tracking more, says Nate Cardozo, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group.

EDR's are valuable but the proposed regulations don’t protect consumer privacy because there are no limits to the data carmakers can collect, he said.

“It’s not required that they track location, it’s not required that they record video or audio, but it’s also not prohibited,” Cardozo says. “There’s nothing that prevent an EDR from recording five minutes or five months of data before a crash.”

According to Cardozo, information could be used against drivers. Could the police access it without a warrant? And what about insurance companies?

“So the scenarios we see are insurance companies using this data to assess risk and set rates based on what they think the EDR shows about your driving habits,” he says.

Some insurance policies already require access to EDR data -- although several states have made it illegal.

Russ Rader at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety says carmakers rely on the data to develop new safety features. If there are too many restrictions, it may limit innovation.

“We need flexibility in rules that can accommodate safety technologies in the future that perhaps we can’t imagine,” Rader says.

Cardozo, the civil liberties lawyer, says that if automakers need that data, the law should require them to disclose it to consumers.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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