Is there a black box in your car? (probably)

Illustration for article titled Is there a black box in your car? (probably)

Yes, we are getting so very close! Black boxes are absent in less than 10% of all new passenger vehicles. With the newest statistics suggesting that 96% of all automobiles manufactured for use in the United States have a black box as standard equipment, it’s looking as if omnipotent safety is drawing ever closer to tangible reality.


This article shows that the NHTSA had proposed that black boxes be mandated by September 2014. September came and went. There doesn’t seem to be much, if any additional information as to whether this proposal was accepted, rejected, or modified. With these devices being so prevalent these days, why has this mandate even taken this long?

The black box is not a new concept. Flight data recorders were introduced in the 1950's. We often hear them referenced in the news in the tragic event in which a passenger aircraft doesn’t touch down safely at its intended destination. Both data and voice recorders are instrumental in understanding “how” and “why” in the aftermath of modern aviation disasters. These devices are essential for us to determine if a mechanical failure of a specific component on an aircraft was at fault for an incident, or if it was pilot error. The current FAA mandate basically puts a flight data and cockpit voice recorder on any commercial flight that you’re going to board in the civilized world, unless you’re in a bush-plane in Alaska or somewhere else that is very remote.


So, why do we want these recording devices in our cars? What’s the point? Is it to track and monitor me, the driver? Or, is to track and monitor the automaker that manufactured the car in which I drive? Is it a way for the powers that be to prove when I’ve made mistakes behind the wheel, or is it a way to prove when an auto manufacturer has made mistakes behind the welder?

Both, and for drivers and pedestrians alike, it’s important that we become familiar with the implications of this new mandate and the possibilities inherent within this new data that is becoming available. It’s important to know how this data will and could be used, because it will eventually impact you in some way.


These data capture devices started out as event data recorders or “EDRs,” for use in post-crash analysis of airbag deployment in the 70's by General Motors. As an airbag deployed in a GM vehicle manufactured after 1974, so did that GM vehicle’s “EDR.” These early devices proved successful in capturing some of the parameters that could help to indicate “why” an airbag deployed. Yet, the NHTSA didn’t conduct a full study on the usefulness of these devices until the late 90's. As a result of that later study, EDRs began expanding in capability and use throughout the 2000's. After over a decade of development, they eventually morphed in to the full-fledged “black box” of the proposed-to-be mandatory units. So, what else could the data provided by these advanced electronic monitors be used for?

Parameter Tracking or Manipulation:

There are a vast number of potential benefits to this type of black box system. What if your car was directly linked to your insurance company? Insurance companies could be able to give discounts to well-mannered drivers. You may recall a major insurance provider marketing a program in which they would track your driving habits for a period of time in order to qualify you for a safe-driver discount. That GPS unit was removable and was sent back to the insurance company once the pre-defined monitoring period was over. These new GPS black boxes are not removable (even if you can physically remove the device from the automobile and preserve that automobile’s functionality, you will most likely face stiff penalties or possibly even imprisonment if you’re caught having done so.)


If auto manufacturers, or you, give insurance companies access to this data – they could also, in turn, raise your premium if you are deemed an “unsafe” driver. They could possibly even raise your premium based off of any number of parameters including what time you drive, how often you drive, and what roadways you drive on. It has the potential to become a risk analyst’s wet dream. Accident fault will also be more easily determined. If an offender’s throttle position sensor is registering the go-pedal at 95% depression moments before a collision, they won’t be able to hide it no matter how slick the road was or if their black box was somehow destroyed in the accident. The automaker will have the data in their cloud and that driver’s insurance company may be storing that data as well. Suspects in crimes from kidnapping to bank robbery will be more easily tracked and apprehended in the moments following a crime in situations in which we know what vehicles they are operating. Remember, Ford has already admitted that they know when you’re breaking the law – but specifically in regard to traffic offenses.


Although Ford has issued a statement back-stepping from their initial comments - they still let the world know that this data exists and is accessible - remotely. It’s very hard to conceive that private companies are not using this readily available data to their advantage. It’s reasonable to speculate that this data is, in fact, being utilized. It is also reasonable to speculate that with the ability to track a vehicle’s given parameters, automakers will also have the ability to manipulate these parameters and override a driver’s control in more situations than just parallel parking. A primary application for these abilities could be utilization by law enforcement or emergency medical services.

Read just the first paragraph of this 2006 NHTSA document entitled “EDR Final Ruling,” and it becomes clear that this is precisely the motivation for the NHTSA in implementing this technology.


Real-Time Component-Use Analysis:

Arguably, the automobile, itself, could improve based on the new data that auto manufacturers will publicly have access to. Why not review the use and stresses of each component in order to build a better car? Being able to pool the data of how, when, and where each of us individually travel is a huge leap forward for automakers. In the past, these manufacturers were forced to rely upon physical inspection of their products or voluntary owner surveys in order to understand how we used them. Now, automakers will be able to see how we use their products, every single time that we use them, while we’re using them. Automakers could also monitor for failures in their products as they start to happen in real-time. Recalls could be issued before components completely fail. It’s hard to imagine all companies not doing this, not just the recently recall-stricken GM.


This data could also be used to identify areas in which industrial design can enhance the service requirements for some key components. Manufacturers could intentionally reduce the service life of certain items that require replacement in order to raise profits in specific areas. Tesla and the electric car are a threat to manufacturers primarily relying on internal combustion engines. The electric car is an even bigger threat to those manufacturer’s dealerships. Dealerships make a profit from servicing the cars that they sell. The electric car has fewer moving parts than an internal combustion powered car and therefore requires less service. Tesla and the electric car could cause an economic gap where some of these dealerships really make their money - keeping your crazy explosion-powered-petrodollar-consuming-torque-converting contraption on the road.

Even with ever-restricting government regulations and profit-devouring environmental requirements - I still know that most American companies primarily exist to serve their consumers and better the world for all of humanity. It’s not as if these companies are driven by the sheer desire to stay competitive and relevant in an increasingly intense global market focused on maximizing profits to satisfy shareholders at any cost. So, I’m trusting automakers will primarily be focused on using this data and new technology to make us great cars that last forever and rarely need serviced. Unlike noted (by me) pessimist Doug DeMuro


Data Farming and Profiting:

The idea of data farming may be a bit fresher than the black box, but most of us are familiar with how this works. A grocery store gives us a discount card that they associate with our identity. They then monitor and analyze our purchases as they are “farmed” at the register, so that they can sell to us more effectively. The consumer primarily focuses on the instant discount from a “discount card,” and may not perceive how such practices could actually cause them to spend more money. How could the data from our cars be used to make auto manufacturers more money?


The data on how we use automobiles has the potential to be the biggest data cash-cow, yet. Automobiles, and how they’re used, are influentially relevant to almost every aspect of a modern American’s life. Even if you don’t own or drive an automobile, something, if not everything, that you buy and use in this country was at one time on a truck or in a van (or in a someone’s hatch-back.) This data could be viewed as potentially commercially profitable to virtually every industry from environmental protection to auto-racing. In the same way that grocery stores use this information to put items and packaging on their shelves that are designed to make you more likely to react and buy, businesses from all walks of life could make more money by knowing where and when you travel and how to market themselves around your life. You know how that last item you looked up on follows you around the internet in the form of similar advertising? Well, now those ads could be getting ready to follow you down the street.

Homeland Security:

Outside the scope of just the automakers benefiting from potentially selling this new data, you have to assume that Uncle Sam is going to be in on the action as well. The scope of the possibilities as to what the government could do if they could monitor, let alone control, every car in the country would make a conspiracy theorist’s head spin. The government will either find ways to access this data where and when they want to in a manner that they responsibly construct as legal, or possibly gain access regardless of legality or even our knowledge. The U.S. Government has a zero-tolerance policy in regard to terrorism on U.S. soil. The ability to track or control vehicles of suspected terrorists seems a bit too tantalizing to conceive of homeland security passing it up.


Wrongful Imprisonment:

With intelligently designed systems from mankind also come human errors from those that design, implement, and operate said systems. In the event of a failure within a system, if you aren’t familiar with how a system works or what it is comprised of, you won’t know what has failed or how to fix a failure when it occurs. Any time that we rely on something – we give that “something” the opportunity to fall short of our expectations or requirements. From a misplaced document to a lack of quality control, we have all relied on systems that have failed us at some point, for some reason. How could failures in this black box system affect individual drivers or their vehicle’s occupants?


Let’s look at a few worst case, hopefully hyperbolic scenarios:

What happens when you’re driving home one night, and suddenly your car’s steering wheel, windows, and doors all lock at once? The car is still driving and steering, but seemingly entirely of its own accord. Your car proceeds to slow down and pull over to a safe and well-lit area off of the roadway, but you’re stopped and locked inside. A crime has been committed, and the witness who reported the license plate number of the perpetrator, instead, mistakenly gives the police your plate number. Now, you’re sitting in your car waiting for the police to come and question you. You are now in jail in your own car. If the reported crime was severe, police may have their guns drawn on you when they reach you. This sounds like a psychological nightmare. What if you were on your way to work or to see your child’s sporting event? Systems do not care when they fail. The individuals that are affected by the failures are usually the only people that suffer any of the consequences.


What if, even worse, a glitch in the code for cruise control or electronic steering suddenly cause you to have an accident that you are powerless to avoid? What if the data recorder makes an error in recording the first digit of your speed, which somehow causes you to appear at fault in an accident in which you’re actually the victim? Automobile accidents have legal implications for at-fault operators. In this instance, the person who wrote the code is actually the person directing this vehicle’s actions. Those directions are relying on ever-increasing electronic devices that are designed and built by a limitless number of different people. How will all of these behind-the-scenes elements play out in courts? What kind of auditing system will consumers have in place to protect themselves? What will happen to people who are left helpless when the system that they had relied upon fails them?

As with a lot of new technological advancements, most of the general public’s understanding doesn’t breach the concept of what that technology accomplishes and (sort of) how to use it. How technology accomplishes tasks is simply not important to most people or requires a vernacular that the general public does not have; and therefore, it is simply not in the rhetoric. Still, why raise such a fuss about what the negative implications of automotive black box technology could be? What are we really giving up by allowing these devices as standard in our personal modes of transportation? What do we care if companies are making a profit from data that we generate?

“The right to be left alone – the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” - Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis


There are certain times, and particularly when I’m in my car, that I just want to be left alone. People who are dead inside will argue that if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you don’t need any privacy. Instances may have arisen, when in my own personal car, that I have taken actions that the department of motor vehicles would consider “wrong.” I may have, after observing another vehicle too close in proximity to the the rear of my vehicle for a few too many miles, briefly or “abruptly” turned on my 3rd tail light. Maybe there have been scenarios where I have jumped the speed limit by 12mph, on a back-road with clear visibility in all directions, to avoid a red light. Maybe none of those situations have occurred. In any case, most of the time I still just want to be left alone. When I shut the door of my car, I’m (most often) alone and I’m in control. Both privacy and control are elementally and equally part of why I enjoy going for a drive.

Control is important to me because a car can crash, and I am not designed for car crashes. I am intimately aware of what car crashes are and it is very important to me that I avoid them. I don’t trust this task to many other people, either. Adding a myriad of digital elements in to the mix of what is watching and possibly controlling my car, frankly, freaks me out. It’s my car. I want to drive it. I worked many hours to buy it. I will work many more hours to pay for its fuel and insurance. I should get to control all aspects of what it is, what it does, and what it’s used for.


To me, the thought of mixing the potential failures of I.T. with the potential failures of an automobile is a terrifying concept. Windows crashes enough without being able to drive my car. For now, technology is content to primarily be a passenger on your journey (albeit a passenger that is getting ready to snitch on your every move.) As the growing capabilities of technology reach out in to transportation, they can’t help but also have an impact on the freedom that our individual modes of transportation provide. When is that impact too large? How much individual power are we willing to give up before we recognize and protect it as endangered? Privacy was a big part of the enjoyment and freedom of driving for me. I, for one, am sad to see it go.



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