Black Box Technology in Passenger Cars

Most people around the U.S. are familiar with the term “black box” and probably associate the technology with airplanes and airplane crashes.  But what the average person does not know is that they are likely have a “black box” in their personal automobile that records many of the car’s functions.  This is not new technology.  It has been used to monitor airbags for nearly twenty years in passenger automobiles.  In fact, almost 96 percent of the automobiles produced last year include “black boxes,” or Event Data Recorders (EDRs).

EDRs function similarly to a “black box” on an airplane.  The device is constantly recording data, but it does not transmit the data.  Instead, it only saves a segment of data preceding a crash.  The installation of EDRs has been voluntary by car manufacturers and has gone largely unnoticed by the average consumer and unregulated.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is pushing to require all new vehicles come equipped with EDRs.  In 2013, NHTSA initiated Final Ruling 49 CFR Part 563, which sent minimum standards as to the data that must be recorded if auto manufacturers choose to include an EDR in their vehicles.  Before these standardized rules, auto makers were left to determine what data was collected, how they collected it, and how it was transferred off the EDR.

Final Ruling 49 CFR Part 563 sets a minimum requirement for crash data that must be recorded by a black box.  Some of the minimum requirements are that the black box record the vehicle’s speed just prior to impact, throttle and brake application, seat belt use, and airbag deployment.  Also included in the new standards is a requirement that if auto makers choose to place an EDR in a vehicle they must disclose this fact in the vehicle’s owner’s manual.

The new standards address many of the issues regarding what EDRs must record, but many questions remain as to what the data can be used for, and who is entitled to collect the data.  To date, there is not a national standard as to who the data belongs to and what a permissible use of the data is.  Several states are taking matters into their own hands and passing laws to clarify who is entitled to retrieve the data.  Fourteen states have passed laws that deem the EDR data as the vehicle’s owner’s property, however, law enforcement officers and those involved in civil litigation can ask a court for an order granting access to the data.

There is no requirement in other states for a court order for third parties to access the data.  One of the greatest unanswered questions surrounding the rise in black box prevalence is “what can the data be used for?”  As one can imagine, auto makers, law enforcement agencies, insurance companies and individuals involved in civil litigation may want this valuable crash data for various reasons.

Many questions remain unanswered about EDRs, but what is clear is that NHTSA is attempting to standardize the use of EDRs and what data they record.  With today’s technology, there is no reason that crash data should not be recorded in a standard format that is easy to access.    Regardless of who is entitled to access the data, or what that data can be used for, it is important to preserve the EDR after an accident.  The information needed to piece together what occurred in a collision is frequently located on the EDR.  For this reason it is important to preserve the EDR after an accident and retrieve the data as the law permits.


Source: New York Times