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Car black boxes: The secret spy inside your automobile

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 7:03 p.m. MDT

Crashed cars with airbags deployed are shown to visitors as part of the display of Toyota Motor Corp.'s safety performance standards, called "Global Outstanding Assessment," at the automaker's exhibition hall in Toyota, central Japan, Thursday, March 4, 2010. Toyota has for years blocked access to data stored in devices similar to airline "black boxes" that could explain crashes blamed on sudden unintended acceleration, according to an Associated Press review of lawsuits nationwide and interviews with auto crash experts. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

Shuji Kajiyama, AP

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WASHINGTON — When airplanes crash, investigators look for the black box (an electronic data recorder that contains information such as speed and altitude) to help understand what happened. The data can help improve safety in design and procedures — and affix blame.

The U.S. Senate has passed a bill that would require similar "event data recorders" or EDRs to be in all new vehicles by 2015. The House is also expected to pass the measure, according to Car and Driver.

PC World says the bill makes it clear the information in the EDRs would belong to the owner or lessee of the cars: "According to the text of the bill, the data on the recording device may not be retrieved by anyone other than the owner or the lessee … unless, of course, the government asks for it."

But for most people, this is all rather moot. As IEEE Spectrum points out, "According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 85 percent of new vehicles come equipped with black boxes. Still, the average driver has no idea that in the event of a crash, data stored in the box details how the car was being driven in the moments before impact."

Spectrum also said that such technology is "sure to play an ever greater role in courtroom drama." You can say you were only traveling 50 miles per hour, but with the EDR, the government can (with your permission or with a court order) download exactly how fast you were going — plus whether you braked, had your seat belt on and other data.

This happened recently in Pittsburgh, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where a teen was convicted of three counts of homicide by vehicle after the 2007 Dodge Caliber he was driving crashed — killing three people. "According to testimony at trial," the Post-Gazette said, "...and information recovered from the Event Data Recorder in the vehicle — Safka was traveling 106 mph just before the crash."

EDRs also figure in lawsuits against Toyota for alleged incidents of sudden-acceleration.

The reason EDRs were put in cars in the first place had more to do with making cars more safe and reliable, The Economist said. "The technology that America's lawmakers want to be made compulsory was originally intended for another purpose. With the widespread adoption of airbags, which began in the late 1980s, General Motors (GM), an airbag pioneer, wanted better analysis of how airbags were deployed, to improve their reliability and effectiveness. To obtain the data it required, GM began fitting a small memory unit to the electronic module that triggers the airbags. Ford, Chrysler and other carmakers followed suit," it added.

The amount of data, even though it is only for a few seconds of drive time, can be used to reconstruct the accident. "As cars have deployed more electronics, the amount of recordable data has grown," The Economist said. "It can include forward and sideways acceleration and deceleration, vehicle speed, engine speed and steering inputs. The data can also show if the accelerator was being pressed, if the brakes were being applied and if the seat belts were being worn. If there is a crash and the airbags are fired, the data covering the preceding five seconds or so are stored in memory."

Several sites tell people how to disable EDRs because of privacy concerns. Commenters on these sites often say people who do this are trying to hide bad behavior.

To determine if a car has an EDR, a person can look in the car's manual or do an online search.

The Economist noted, "Two years after implementation, the bill says Congress should consider its impact on road safety and individual privacy. If lives are saved and privacy respected, then data recorders in cars will be here to stay."

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com TWITTER: @degroote FACEBOOK: facebook.com/madegroote

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