Automotive Black Boxes: Fact Versus Fiction

Electronic data recorders silently ride shotgun in your vehicle. But what do they actually record?

By Doug Newcomb of MSN Autos


“Black box” recorders are usually associated with airplanes — more specifically, airplane disasters. Officially known as an event data recorder, the device collects information during a flight to allow aviation authorities to determine what happened during that flight or, more importantly, what went wrong during an in-air mishap.

Similar devices have silently ridden shotgun in many 4-wheeled vehicles for about two decades and serve a similar purpose; i.e., they record what was happening to the vehicle during a particular event.

Vehicle-based EDRs were designed to give automakers feedback on how and when airbags deployed, in order to improve the technology and make vehicles safer. EDR data were instrumental, for example, in development of the dual-stage or “smart” airbag, which deploys at one of two speeds, or not at all, depending on the severity of a collision. This helps reduce the number of airbag-related injuries to adults and children.

Automakers also use EDR data to track manufacturing defects and issue recalls. For instance, the data provided by these devices proved critical in the federal investigation into the unintended-acceleration controversy that has affected Toyota vehicles over the past few years.

All in all, black boxes have had a positive effect on automotive safety since they first hit the road. And it seems as though they are about to become mandatory on all new cars.

But not everyone is in favor of EDRs in cars. Some consumer and privacy advocates point out that they aren’t only used to improve safety, but also help automakers cover their, well, you know what. “Automakers also use [the data] to fend off product liability claims such as airbag malfunctions and sudden unintended acceleration,” says Tom Kowalick, chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and a noted EDR expert.

Conspiracy theorists even worry that EDRs can and will be used to track drivers’ every movement — wherever, whenever. Imagine federal and state governments able to track where, when and how fast you are going 24/7, every day of the year. Scary, right?

Consequently, there is a lot of apprehension about mandating that every car have a black box. The recording and sharing of personal information has become a touchy topic in our increasingly connected world. To help you decide where you stand on the black-box debate, pro or con, we’ve separated fact from fiction so that you know what type of data an EDR collects — and when — and your rights concerning that data.

Fiction: EDRs are required on all cars

Not yet, at least. The federal government currently doesn’t require automakers to install EDRs in vehicles. Each automaker decides whether to include one, and many do. But that could soon change with pending legislation. “There’s a proposed Senate rule pending that would require EDRs in all vehicles,” says Ron Medford, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “[The new law] would take out the option and say that all car manufacturers must install EDRs.”


Fact: Automakers have to declare the presence of an EDR

Since 2006, NHTSA has stipulated that automakers that include the device in a vehicle have to disclose to consumers that an EDR is on board. (The information is usually found in the owner’s manual.) NHTSA also recently mandated that vehicles manufactured after Sept. 1, 2011, that include the devices must record data in a standardized format.


Fiction: An EDR constantly records your driving habits

An automotive black box begins recording information only after it detects enough force to trigger it, such as in a collision or significant impact after a hard jolt. “The algorithm that sets off the capturing of EDR data can be triggered without deploying an airbag,” says Todd Hutchison, an accident reconstruction expert and vice president of VCE Inc. in Nashville, Tenn. “It can be set off by, say, hitting a curb really hard.” Otherwise, the device remains inactive.


Fact: An EDR records only certain information

Ramtron Event Data Recorder

In addition to the date and time when triggered, the data that EDRs collect include vehicle speed, engine speed, steering angle, throttle position, braking status, force of impact, seat-belt status and airbag deployment. It cannot tell who was driving and where. It can’t tell if the driver was intoxicated, violating a traffic law or using a cell phone.


Fiction: Service technicians at dealerships have access to EDR data

When you bring your car in for service, a technician can theoretically access the data on an EDR, although it’s highly unlikely. While service techs routinely access data about a vehicle through the onboard diagnostic port, they would need special tools and software to tap into an EDR. “Normally, when automotive technicians service a vehicle, they don’t access the black-box data that an accident investigator or police department personnel would,” Hutchison says.


Fact: Specialized training is required to extract and analyze EDR data

Even if a service tech does access a vehicle’s EDR, extracting the data requires the proper diagnostic tools, and specialized software and training are required to properly analyze the data. “You can hook into the data link port, but you have to have specific modules and cables and the software to be able to read the information from the EDR to get pre-crash data,” Hutchison says. “And you have to know what you’re looking for and know how it applies to a particular accident.”


Fiction: EDR data can be accessed without your consent

“For the most part, EDR access is very much a matter of state law,” says Dorothy Glancy, professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law in California. Federal legislation is pending that would make this a legal standard nationwide. However, the proposed law would allow emergency personnel such as police, firefighters and paramedics access to the data without a court order if it helps them better respond to an accident.


Fact: EDR data can be accessed by court order

Currently, several states have statutes that regulate who owns the data from a car’s black box and who can gain access to it. In many states, a warrant is required to access the data without the owner’s consent. But as with any law, exceptions exist and a court order can be used to force a car owner to hand over black-box data in legal proceedings. “We either need the permission of the owner of the vehicle or get a subpoena through the courts to get access to the data,” says Buddy Oakes, an insurance agent in Columbia, Tenn. “It’s not something that happens every day. It probably comes up two or three times a year, but we’re a small regional insurance company.” One potential loophole: When a car is totaled, it becomes the property of the driver’s auto insurance company. The insurer then owns the data and could possibly use them as evidence in a court case.


Fiction: EDR data can conclusively prove fault in a court case

While EDR data is valuable in reconstructing an accident for investigators, they don’t provide conclusive evidence. “I’ll first do an accident reconstruction at the scene to see what types of forces were involved in a collision and what types of evasive action was taken or not taken, and how far the vehicles went after the collision,” Hutchison says. “So you can use the scene data to determine what happened and how it happened.” But not why it happened.


Fact: EDR data is only part of the puzzle in an accident

“The physical aspects of the accident have to match up with the data from the EDR,” Oakes says. “Usually it does. But there could be situations where it doesn’t. And the [EDR data] isn’t something we would put a lot of weight into at that point if the physical damage doesn’t look right.”

It can also be used in “he said, she said” situations, according to Oakes. “That’s where it works best,” he says, “when someone says they were sitting at a red light and somebody hit them. Then we’ll look at the black-box data and find out they were going 30 mph and braked right before impact.”


Doug Newcomb has been writing about automotive-related topics since 1988. His work has appeared in Consumers Digest, Road & Track, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal and many other publications. His book, Car Audio for Dummies, is available from Wiley Publishing.