August 22, 2006

Does your car have a black box?

Do you even know whether it does? Do you want to know? Do you feel you have a right to know? Well, now you do have that right, that is, you will beginning with 2011 model cars.

How much would your driving change if you knew you had one of these things in your car? Under the new regulations, the devices will "collect at least 15 types of data, including vehicle speed, whether the driver was wearing a seat belt, and whether the driver hit the accelerator or the brake before the crash." But maybe you already have one of these things in your car. It would seem to me that the main value of the device is to change your behavior in all the many drives you take that don't end in a crash.

Interestingly, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers supported the new rules. And the ACLU has a problem:
Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the government "punted on the most important privacy issues," such as whether the data is accessible to third parties without a judicial order or an owner's consent and whether the devices can be turned on or off.


Dave said...

Solution: live in a city with good public transportation.

David said...

This is a great idea. We have black boxes on planes and trains already. When used in conjunction with a LOJAC type of device (GPS) it would help in AMBER alerts and stolen vehicle situations.

It has been my experience that cameras on trains, etc., cut down on a lot of conversation when the 'silent sentinel' plays back the facts as they occurred. I expect the ACLU and Trial Lawyers Association to be against this technology because it addresses their sometimes baseless claims.

Veeshir said...

I predict that in about September, 2010, we will start seeing people offer a "black-box removal service". I hope they make lots of money.
Heck, I would take mine out and take it on an airplane. Let's see them make sense out of my car going going from NY to LA in what, 8-9 hours? Or me driving to Italy. Then, I'll leave it there on a train. They can track my car as it goes between Milan and Genoa all day long.

Bissage said...

Ann asked: "How much would your driving change if you knew you had one of these things in your car?"

Well, that depends. Would it record that I was an older mother with a terrible driving record who convinced her ordinarily sensible adult son to let her drive the car (just this once) who was driving at night when she spotted some idiot on a Segway (who was actually one of her other sons)and started yelling at him to get off the road as she drove off the road and hit a tree causing the boulder in the back seat of the car to hit her son in the back of the head and knock him unconscious so she could drag him over and put him in the driver's seat so the cops would show up and it would look like he was the one who was driving and got into the accident, not her?

If the black box records all that, then, yes, it would change my driving.

ignacio said...

I want to be able to drive 100MPH once in a while when the highway is clear.

joeone said...

What's our expectation of privacy when we're out for a drive on a public road? Just wondering.

Simon Kenton said...

Reminiscent, at least to me, of smart guns. Only recognize you, so if your husband sees you in trouble and mistakenly grabs your gun from the bureau instead of his, it won't shoot. This will put the initial price of guns with the feature way up, drive the resale value of guns with the feature to near 0, and rev up the price of old guns without.

I drive like a farmer: sluggish, double-clutch most shifts, poke along at a safe and sane 75. I still wouldn't have it, and think it would lower the value of the vehicle. But it is a touchstone: do you think it more likely to inculpate or exculpate you?

Tim Sisk said...

"What's our expectation of privacy when we're out for a drive on a public road? Just wondering."

How 'bout the black box is our own personal property in a vehicle which presumably is our own personal property? See if you catch me speeding with radar, well, I don't own the radar gun. But if you ticket me (or other charges if an accident is caused) by accessing my own black box without a subpeona, well, I have a big privacy issue with that.

Hard to believe I'm on the side of the ACLU on this one. I say let the manufacturer put them in, but make it so I can turn it off.

J said...

I don't think you'll ultimately have a choice if you want to drive a car. And you won't be able to remove this type of equipment, because it will be incorporated into cars to make systems in the car operate properly. As an example in another mode of transportation (that has black boxes), a 767 as anti-lock brakes, and they require an inertial speed reference to operate. I suspect the day will come when GPS is considered reliable enough to be used in the same fashion in cars - it would already be cheaper to use that reference in cars to operate the speedometer, anti-lock brakes, and automatic transmission shifting (I guess it would be irrelevant on CVTs and manuals).

joeone said...

Tim Sisk, you've given me something to think about over my afternoon coffee. Thanks.

Bissage said...

Joeone: On the other hand, the government interest in the information from a black box seems more compelling than that from an odometer.

Just saying.

Enjoy your coffee.

Me? Diet Coke in the afternoon.

DaveG said...

"What's our expectation of privacy when we're out for a drive on a public road? Just wondering."

OT, but for extra points: what is the correlation between a reduced expectation of privacy (up to and including sobriety checkpoints) on public roads and the expectation of privacy when using public telecommunications infrastructure? I've been noodling that since the TSP ruling.

David said...

What a terrible article.

What's really going on is that these devices are part of the airbag system.

When airbags first came out, they were one size fits all. Your front end would crumple, the airbag would deploy and, if you were a normal sized person, it would likely saver your life. Unfortunately, if you were short or fat or an infant, it might kill you. And sometimes the airbag would deploy for no reason at all. Of course, the car companies got criticized and got sued. They then developed a new airbag system.

Modern airbags inflate differently depending upon the situation. The trigger is more sophisticated, so airbags don't go off unexpectedly. But in order to work properly, they need to keep track of the last few seconds of driving data in order to tell what speed the car is going, whether it's been braking, is it suddenly decelerating from hitting something, etc.

A few years ago, insurance companies and lawyers discovered that they could recover the last information monitered by the airbag controller. So they could tell, for example, whether a person in an accident had been braking, or how fast they were going.

This was kind of spotty, however. There wasn't any uniform information, nor was the device particularly well protected. The insurance companies lobbied the car companies to beef up the devices, and the car companies realized that it might be in their interest, too. (For example, during the sudden acceleration scare they could have proven that the driver was pressing down on the gas.)

That was the state of play when the ACLU and the government got involved.

So, if you have a relatively new car with a modern airbag system in it, you have some version of these "black boxes," and you can't take them out because, if you did, the airbags wouldn't work.

Sigivald said...

Tim: I certainly agree with you that I don't like the idea of being aught speeding via a black box.

But that doesn't necessarily make it a constitutional privacy issue, since the speeding still occurred in public, on a public road, where I can't see any obvious and legitimate constitutional expectation of privacy. But I'm not a 4A scholar, either, so...

Black boxes can be a bad idea (or a good one), even without it being a constitutional privacy issue; I suggest the best way to fight them, if we don't like them, would be to lobby to make certain uses of them (like a subpoena-less search) illegal, rather than trying to make it a 4st Amendment issue, which seems pretty iffy.

Tim Sisk said...

Sigivald: I'm not a lawyer, just a pastor. And it feels weird to me to be on the side of "catch me if you can" (especially since I'm a son and nephew of law enforcement officers). But I see the black box as a possesion, like a diary, which could subject to subpeona or "search warrants" but requires judicial action to violate that privacy. The mere fact that there is an accident isn't a compelling enough event for an officer just "access" the records to determine if a crime has been committed. So if you put a black box in and expect to be able to get the info from it, I expect to have some protection from general snooping. I want a judge to decide if you can snoop. After all, you can't just open my diary if I happen to be driving with it beside me to see if I have done anything wrong.

And the whole "driving on public streets" giving up privacy rights seems to be wrong too, as police officers have very specific rules that must be followed to search your vehicle.

When this issue came up a few years ago, I understood it to be all about civil litigation per David's comments.

SippicanCottage said...
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JorgXMcKie said...

Let's say the black box is yours. Okay. Anyone you want to let have access, you can. Perhaps with limits. That is, you can give written permission for you mechanic to look at only that data needed for routine maintainence and repairs. It should be possible to restrict access to data unnecessary, and to make them useless as legal evidence if 'accidentally' accessed.

You could undoubtedly access all the data yourself to, for instance, keep an eye on your teenage drivers.

In case of an accident with no criminal liability attaching, you could use the data for your defense, or, if you refuse to produce the black box data, the jury could draw inferences from your refusal.

In criminal cases, it could be produced via a warrant, just like any other evidence.

Seems reasonable to me, but then I've been a very careful driver for many, many years.

knoxgirl said...

I'd rather have some sort of giant magnet-car-repellant that keeps other people from running into my car. I've been in 6 accidents, none of them my fault.

MadisonMan said...

veeshir, I am sitting here laughing at an image of a Govt agent sitting in a darkened cubicle somewhere, looking at data from your car and scratching his head with a perplexed look on his face.

Disclaimer: I speed on straight empty roads in the UP.

SteveR said...

I'm not especially paranoid about this, there are lots of information sources out of our control, everytime we use a phone, log onto the internet, etc.

Anyway, I ceased to have control over my car the last time I changed the points and condenser (about 1980).

altoids1306 said...

Remember, the black box is for your own good.

The nanny state expands again.

Mark the Pundit said...

If we have a black box in all of our cars, I say it can only mean one thing:

Flying cars! Oh yes, they are coming...

Pastor_Jeff said...

Does your car have a black box?

I'll have you know that "black box" is a highly offensive sexist and racial slur.

Bissage said...

Maybe this had a black box?

Troy said...

As long as there is not a cockpit voice recorder I can live with the patently offensive black box.

Imagine the black box showing the accident was my fault (legally not morally as in the case of idiots who stand on the brake in an on ramp to an interstate and are then rear-ended) -- while the voice recorder records me calling said driver everything under the sun in the few milliseconds prior.... An accident could turn into a hate crime or worse -- a new form of viral audio e-mails.

Troy said...

As long as there is not a cockpit voice recorder I can live with the patently offensive black box.

Imagine the black box showing the accident was my fault (legally not morally as in the case of idiots who stand on the brake in an on ramp to an interstate and are then rear-ended) -- while the voice recorder records me calling said driver everything under the sun in the few milliseconds prior.... An accident could turn into a hate crime or worse -- a new form of viral audio e-mails.

chuckR said...

A friend does accident reconstruction for a living. And yes, he has used black box data, as well as accident kinetics software that assesses possible accident scenarios independent of black box data, measurements at the scene, tests of similar vehicles, etc. At an accident, all the participants may be mistaken or lying and the cops may get it wrong too. I believe he needs court permission to access the data as well he should. He only gets involved with claims that have resulted in serious injury, death and/or criminal charges and consequently there is plenty of legal wrangling and oversight. I would be very troubled with a nanny state extension of this capability that allowed easy access. If you mandate high storage capacity black boxes that log the airbag sensors, the ABS brake sensors and the car's stability control program and sensors that already exist in many cars, then no one should be able to tap the data short of an accident. If you are in the right, then this is a tool to help you. If you are in the wrong, tough. Or maybe refusing permission to release this data should be weighed as if you refused a breathalyzer test.

Jim said...

It would be very easy to install a device to incinerate the black box in the case of an accident that fired the airbags, so that all records would be lost.

In fact, anyone this side of Van de Graff or Tesla can do it with a simple high-voltage pulse. I'll be selling those devices once Big Brother starts reading black boxes!

Dr. Melissa said...

A black box of sorts has existed on cars since they had computerized problem notification. My dad was an auditor with a car company. They could hook up the car and find out the speed the driver was going at the time of impact. This whole turn of events came when drivers would lie and say, "But I was braking!" and want to sue the manufacturer for faulty engineering. The computer told a different story. The computer won. So all you civil libertarians out there are probably driving around with a device already in your vehicle that could confirm or deny your "recollection" of events. It's been that way for at least ten years.

LiberaltarianMan said...

black box on my car?
don't think so.
will be a really good time to go into the used car biz i'd imagine

Bruce Hayden said...

I don't like the idea, but figure we're stuck with them. The manufacturers are going to put them in, integrate them into their systems, and then void your warranty if you remove them, on the basis that since they are integrated, they are functionally important to the operation of the vehicle.

Take just one example. Audi got into a bad legal situation with a claim that its automatic transmission cars were slipping into gear and accelerating, or something like that. We didn't worry about it at the time, because all of our Audis had stick shifts. It appears in retrospect that the problem was with the drivers, and not the cars. Nevertheless, it cost the company a lot of money, esp. in lost sales. Obviously, if they had had black boxes back then, they could have quickly said: no, the operator shifted and hit the gas, if that were actually the case.

I blame the lawyers and the legal system today for this. As it sits right now, if a claimed problem has a 25% chance of being true, if you can try it 10 times, you are liable to get a verdict in your favor. Then, you use that to leverage a national settlement, etc.

So, my guess is that in mass tort, defective vehicle, cases, the car companies are going to figure that they are far likelier to benefit from black boxes than be hurt by them, and, thus, my suggestion that their removal will void warranties, and, maybe even make the cars inoperable.

Bill R said...

I bought a 2006 VW Jetta this June.
In the owners manual it states: There is no recording type "blackbox" installed.

The same probably goes for Prof, Alhouse's Audi TT.

Corvettes have had a "blackbox" for a couple of years.

Tim Sisk said...

I think I'm fine with manufacturers protecting themselves from liability through the use of "black boxes", especially since the owner presumably is the one that initiates legal proceedings.

My problem is law enforcement using the black box. I would want it covered like any other possesion you have that might be used against you.

Or we could just have a big "sign" that flashes publicly your speed limit (after all, we have brake lights to indicate when we are braking)...

Idle Mind said...

My problem is with insurance companies accessing the data. You will have to sign over all rights to be able to get
any reasonable preimum rates.

So you never drive about 55mph? yeah right.

chuckR said...

billr - interesting statement by VW. But I would bet that there is useful information in the diagnostics for the ECU and probably also for the airbag accelerometers. No formal black box may not mean no data available.

idle mind - how about legislation that limits insurance company access to events where a claim is made?

And what about limits on the amount of data logged? Accidents are generally quick - I'd guess that 60 seconds worth of data would be a conservative amount.

Some of this data has been available for years. Its time for the laws to catch up.

tcd said...

"So you never drive abo(ve) 55mph? yeah right."

How about following speed limit laws? It's ridiculous that you think insurance companies would hold their policyholders to arbitrary rules like setting their own speed limits. If you weren't so clueless about what your piehold spouts, you would know that insurance companies, generally require that their policyholders follow the laws. And about those premium rates, did you know that the insurance companies must file their rates with a state insurance commissioner (office appointed by the governor of the state) for review and approval before they can charge their policyholders said rates?
The insurance industry is so over-regulated and monitored that it surprises me that so many boobs still think that we (I'm an insurance agent) are free to do whatever we like to unwitting consumers.

HaloJonesFan said...

"If you weren't so clueless about what your piehold spouts..."

? I don't use my mouth for holding pie...eating pie, maybe...

"How about following speed limit laws?"

Speed limit laws are based on nothing but hot air and police department revenue requirements. I am not a mindless robot that blindly follows all regulations. I am a thinking human being who is aware of his own capabilities, and I pilot my vehicle such that I don't exceed those capabilities--which often means that I'm going faster than the speed limit, but sometimes means that I'm going slower.

Sigivald said...

Tim Sisk: Ah! It completely hadn't occurred to me (somehow) that the issue was the search of the box itself. That makes a lot more sense, yeah.

The question then becomes, I guess, whether or not such a search is reasonable, and it's not even a privacy issue, just a straight 4A question.

Bruce: The problem with the Audi example is that the black boxes don't actually record "what the driver did"; they report braking and throttle changes. If a bad computer program or mechanical problem caused the throttle to change, the black box would record that... but it wouldn't have any way to know whether it was because the driver moved the pedal, or because the ECU moved the linkage, or because of some purely mechanical problem.

(Of course, such data could also be sensed and logged, but that's expensive, complex, and not worth the trouble for the small chance of such a thing being useful. The only one of those you could get for close to free is logging when the ECU changed the throttle itself (since it's already computerised, and the black box should already be talking to the ECU anyway).)

tcd said...

Yes, thank you, I meant "piehole" :)

"I am not a mindless robot that blindly follows all regulations." I don't like speed limit laws either, but what are you gonna do about them? Take up arms? Go to court for every ticket received?

Charlie Eklund said...


You are probably aware of this, but for some reason this post from August 2006 is showing up as your current offering today (Feb. 19, 2007).

And it is still as fascinating as the first time I read it.

SM Blogger said...
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