U.S. News

White House Wants Black Boxes in Cars

Paul A. Eisenstein

The White House has given its OK to a plan that would require all future cars and trucks be equipped with event data recorders — more commonly known as "black boxes."

Most vehicles produced today already have such devices on board, and they have aided in recent investigations into such safety issues as the so-called unintended-acceleration scare at Toyota. But the use of the technology has also raised some privacy concerns.

Congress failed to pass legislation that would have required the use of EDRs in 2010. That prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to consider its own mandate. A review was completed this week by the White House Office of Management and Budget, and final regulations will likely follow early next year.

The proposal was originally expected by late 2011, but the process was delayed without explanation. Nonetheless, NHTSA has listed the use of black boxes as a "priority," and a spokesperson insists such devices are critical to "continued improvements in vehicle safety."

Automotive EDRs are similar to — though not nearly as sophisticated as — the black boxes used in commercial airliners, which are routinely used to provide critical information about crashes and other aircraft incidents. They are already installed in nearly 92 percent of today's vehicles, according to industry officials, and provide important information for industry engineers and, in some circumstances, law enforcement authorities.

During several investigations looking into claims that Toyota products would unexpectedly begin to accelerate without driver input, researchers used such recorders to see what actually happened. They discovered the issue often was, in fact, driver error, such as the application of the throttle rather than the brake.

Big Brother in a Black Box

The industry trade group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, has endorsed the use of black boxes, but has also warned that any new rules must consider privacy issues.

"We need to make sure we preserve privacy," spokesperson Gloria Bergquist told the Detroit News. "Automakers do not access EDR data without consumer permission, and any government requirements to install EDRs on all vehicles must include steps to protect consumer privacy."

One concern is that new mandates for such devices might make it easy for authorities to see if a motorist was speeding or otherwise violating the law.

Rules vary by state, but in much of the country a law enforcement official — or a plaintiff in a legal case — must get court approval before a vehicle's black box can be accessed without the permission of the owner.

As with an airliner's black box, the technology records and stores only a limited amount of data — though enough information to piece together a snapshot of what might have led up to a crash, such as whether the driver was applying the brakes or throttle, or whether seatbelts were fastened. And while airplane units tape cockpit conversations, no equivalent is in the works for cars.

NHTSA already has stepped into the issue, requiring that as of the start of the 2013 model-year, all EDR data must be standardized and access simplified.

The use of proprietary formats complicated the Toyota unintended-acceleration investigations.