The Black Box: Coming Soon To A Car Near You

A new bill which seems likely to pass in Congress, would mandate that the ‘black boxes’ now in use on commercial airlines throughout America, be standard in all vehicles. These boxes are designed to record important information about the engine and operation of the vehicle for car help purposes and assistance in ‘accident investigation’. They monitor your car health and can be used by law enforcement with the assistance of auto repair technicians to get a better picture of what happened after an accident.

Many people are familiar with the ‘black boxes’ on commercial airliners, and the valuable data they have supplied for investigators of mechanical failures and subsequent crashes they sometimes cause, but others are concerned about privacy issues that may arise when they are installed in private vehicles. Some people are skeptical that these devices are really designed for safety and car help reasons and would not open them up to further monitoring or tracking by law enforcement.

The boxes, which by the way are technically called Event Data Recorders, supposedly would only monitor indicators of car health and information from sensors that would enable investigation of what happened after an automobile accident, they would not be equipped with GPS or location tracking abilities, but still privacy concerns remain.

Despite all this, the fact is most car manufacturers already install similar boxes in their vehicles (GM started doing this back in the late 90’s). They now come standard on over 90% of vehicles. Notably, some popular brands like Mercedes and Audi do not currently have the devices installed, as apparently these automakers do not see a clear advantage in terms of car health or safety.

Hopefully, some of the privacy concerns will be allayed by the fact that the new bill explicitly states that any data recorded by these devices is the property of the vehicle’s owner. Technically, nobody (including law enforcement and auto repair technicians) can access the data without your consent. Though, a warrant can also be obtained for law enforcement to access the data, for instance during a manslaughter case where the defendant’s vehicle was equipped with an EDR. An auto repair technician could download the data for you if you so desired.

A more worrying development may be the fact that some auto insurers are now offering discounted rates in exchange for installing one of these devices or providing them access to your data. This may sound like a good deal, but since these are not car help organizations, but insurers whose only motivation is to make more money I would be wary of this arrangement, lest you end up with a notice that since you are driving recklessly (which they determine from your EDR) your rates will be raised.