Carmakers Must Reveal Black Boxes - Tire Review Magazine

Carmakers Must Reveal Black Boxes

(Akron/Tire Review – Detroit News) After more than a decade of study, federal safety regulators outlined minimum requirements for "black boxes" in vehicles Monday, but stopped short of mandating them.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a new rule that says the devices, officially known as "event data recorders," must be made more durable and that all automakers must collect the same type of data from them.

The rule, which takes effect in September 2010, also requires automakers to tell consumers if their vehicles are equipped with a black box by including the notification in owners’ manuals.

The devices collect a variety of data in the moments before, during and after a crash, such as speed and acceleration, whether the driver was wearing a seat belt and whether the driver hit the accelerator or the brake.

In a statement, NHTSA said the rule will support its efforts to craft new safety regulations "based on accurate crash information that NHTSA collects from vehicle owners" who share data from the black boxes.

NHTSA may reconsider its decision not to mandate the devices if automakers don’t continue to increase the number of models that have them.

"We want to be especially careful not to adopt requirements that would result in unnecessary costs (for the automakers,)" NHTSA said.

NHTSA said 64 percent of all 2005 vehicles had event data recorders, but that number has risen significantly.

Toyota Motor Corp. now installs the devices in all of its vehicles, while General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. equip nearly all their models. Just over half of DaimlerChrysler AG Chrysler Group models have the technology, said spokeswoman Shawn Morgan.

"We’re supportive of the technology, as it leads to better highway safety," she said.

The requirement to notify owners about whether the devices are in vehicles is essentially already in place, since California in 2004 became the first state to require automakers to disclose to customers whether their vehicles have event data recorders.

California is the largest auto market in the United States, accounting for about 10 percent of all U.S. vehicle sales. That law also prohibits downloading data from the recorder without a court order or the owner’s permission.

GM notes that the devices are unlike airplane black boxes, in that they don’t record voices. They typically record the short period before an air bag deploys and then the crash itself. Without a crash being severe enough to prompt an air bag deployment, no data is recorded.

"Event data recorders are a valuable source of real world performance data that we apply toward making our vehicles safer," said GM spokesman Greg Martin.

Ford spokesman Dan Jarvis said the company never accesses data without a customer’s written permission or under a court order.

The devices were initially installed in vehicles to determine when to deploy air bags, using sensors in the vehicle.

NHTSA said the rule will enhance the value of automatic crash notification systems, including an enhanced 911 emergency response system under development, by making it easier for vehicles equipped with rapid crash notification features to provide information to emergency personnel.

In Europe, a similar system is expected to be mandated in all cars by 2009. Called "eCall," it is expected to reduce response time to serious accidents by 50 percent, save 2,500 lives annually and reduce the severity of injuries by 15%.

This year Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire and Virginia have adopted similar disclosure regulations to clarify when law enforcement may retrieve data. States are split on whether police need to obtain a warrant to get the data. Some privacy advocates have voiced concern about the data falling into the wrong hands or about "spying" on drivers.

In 2004, Progressive Insurance offered up to 25% discounts for drivers who agreed to take part in a pilot program to monitor how much, how fast and where they drive.

That used a device that the insurance carrier installed in customers’ vehicles. Cars can also be tracked through EasyPass or other automatic toll booth payment systems. A Connecticut rental car agency used GPS devices to monitor customers’ driving habits and fined them if they sped.

Mindful of the concern of some drivers, some states are considering banning the practice.

On July 1, a new law took effect in New Hampshire that prohibits state "surveillance" of vehicles "through the use of a camera or other imaging device or any other device, including but not limited to a transponder, cellular telephone, global positioning satellite, or radio frequency identification device."

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