Commentary

Thinking Outside the Black Box

This article appeared in the American Spectator, December 10, 2004.

New cars offer a delightful array of information and services: satellite radio, intelligent cruise control, braking and steering assistance, navigation systems, and roadside assistance, to name a few. These all appeal to drivers’ desire for safety, convenience, and comfort.

But a troublesome feature of most new cars is the Event Data Recorder (“EDR”), or Black Box. As in commercial airplanes, the automobile Black Box keeps a running record of how a car is being operated, including speed, acceleration, braking, steering, and seat belt use.

When there is an “event” - usually a crash - the EDR moves the last several seconds of information into long-term storage for later downloading. Well over half of the 2004 model passenger cars and light vehicles have some recording capability of this type.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed standards for the data collected by EDRs, but the agency emphasized in a recent notice that it is not mandating Black Boxes. It will be under pressure to do so. The National Transportation Safety Board has listed Black Boxes as one of its “most wanted” measures.

There are obvious safety benefits if auto accidents can be dissected in detail, of course. Auto manufacturers, safety groups, and insurers want this information. Police departments want it too.

Already, prosecutors are using information from automobile Black Boxes as evidence against drivers. Last year, one Robert Christmann was convicted in a New York traffic fatality based upon information downloaded from his car’s Black Box.

But car manufacturers aren’t touting the safety benefits of the Black Box like they do so many other improvements on the modern automobile. That is because the Black Box is not a safety feature; it is a surveillance tool — and when drivers learn about it, they are none too happy.

After I commented on Black Boxes in a news story earlier this year, letters poured into my e-mail box. “This is `over the top,’ and a definite infringement on my privacy,” said one outraged car owner. Another wrote, “[T]his is a personal vehicle, I’ve paid for it, paid my taxes, enough said.” From another, simply: “Not on my car.”

Many correspondents wanted to know which cars have Black Boxes so they can determine whether their personal vehicles were, in effect, spying on them.

There are a number of directions in which this technology is likely to go. It could collect and retain more information for longer periods. It could interact with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to record where a car has traveled. And it could combine with communications systems to signal authorities in real time.

Joan Borucki, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nominee to head California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, has proposed a mileage tax that Black Boxes could administer. The Oregon Department of Transportation has also considered a mileage tax.

In 2001, a Connecticut car rental company began charging renters a $150 fine for speeding in their rental cars, using a GPS-equipped monitoring system. Consumers can shun companies which make this a practice. But they could not refuse an automatically-issued traffic citation if governments were to add Black-Box-citation revenue to what they now get from red-light cameras.

Legislation passed by the state of California is likely a sign where things are headed. The state requires notices in the owner’s manuals of cars that have Black Boxes. The new law also allows data to be accessed under court order, for research, and for other reasons. California’s EDR law replaced consumer choice with an agreement among politicians, bureaucrats, and industry on a nice low level of protection for consumers.

There is no question that aggregated EDR data can provide important safety benefits. If traffic accidents and deaths can be averted by improving automobile safety, these safety advances should be pursued. But they should be pursued in a way that unites the interests of drivers with the interests of the community.

Insurers should offer car owners discounts if their EDR-equipped cars reveal good driving habits and freedom from blame in accidents. Consumers, not the government, should decide if they want their cars to collect such data, and if they want to share it with others.

Jim Harper is director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute