Obama Administration Pushing for "Black Boxes" on all Vehicles

The Obama administration has signed off on a plan requiring that all vehicles sold in the U.S. be equipped with event data recorders (EDRs), or “black boxes”, as they’re commonly referred to. Approximately 92 percent of vehicles sold today are equipped with the devices.

Although data recorders provide a wealth of valuable information, they have also raised privacy concerns.  In 2010, Congress was unable to pass legislation that would have required that all vehicles be equipped with EDRs, which prompted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to make the issue a top priority. An NHTSA spokesman has said the devices are essential to “continued improvements in vehicle safety.”

Data collected from EDRs was used extensively in the agency’s investigation into unintended acceleration reported by some Toyota owners in 2010. In many instances, the data proved that driver error, not mechanical or electrical problems were to blame for the unintended acceleration.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers supports mandating black boxes in all vehicles, but has also expressed concerns over privacy issues. In a recent interview with the Detroit News, AIM spokesperson Gloria Bergquist said, “We need to make sure we preserve privacy.  Automakers do not access EDR data without consumer permission, and any government requirements to install EDRs on all vehicles must include steps to protect consumer privacy.”

Privacy advocates that data collected from the devices could be used by law enforcement in ways that would amount to an abuse of their power. Laws regarding access to data recorded by EDRs vary from state to state, but in much of the country black box data can be accessed by law enforcement officials without the consent of the motorist.

Unlike the black boxes used in private airplanes and commercial airliners, automotive EDRs do not record conversations between drivers and passengers, and there is no immediate plan to add that capability. Some privacy advocates, however, warn that the possibility exists at some later date.

The use of different types of EDRs and data formats has led to problems and delays in accessing and interpreting data in a number of recent high profile safety recalls. To avoid such complications in the future, the NHTSA has mandated that all EDR data be “communized” beginning with 2013 model year vehicles.

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