Black Boxes Capture Car-crash Data, Controversy

Warren Webb at EDN.com has posted a nice summary article on the vehicle black box controversy, “Black Boxes Capture Car-crash Data, Controversy”:

With little fanfare or customer notification, some automobile manufacturers have for years been recording your driving habits. Initially for optimizing subsystem performance, event-data recorders have now evolved into devices that can store multiple data elements, including engine speed, vehicle speed, air-bag deployment, seat-belt use, and the state of the brakes before and during a crash. Although they are a boon to automobile designers, safety experts, insurance companies, and researchers, event recorders have also served as electronic witnesses to send more than one negligent driver to jail.

[…]Documenting driver digressions is the most controversial application of crash-data recorders. For example, recorder data can easily reveal whether a driver was speeding or braking before an accident. Although most experts agree that recorder information belongs to the vehicle owner, it is not always easy to conceal. ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) lawyers say that most motorists do not even know that their vehicles have the recorders and that disclosure of information from the recorder is an invasion of privacy. ACLU associate director Barry Steinhardt says, “The loss of personal civil liberties always begins with the best intentions of our government,” referring to “in-car surveillance systems.” Yet insurance companies and opposition lawyers have, to the chagrin of many drivers, successfully obtained court orders to extract recorder data after a crash.

Webb also provides an excerpt from a GM Owner’s Manual which addresses the sharing of black box information:

To read this information, special equipment is needed and access to the vehicle or the SDM [sensing and diagnostic module] is required. GM will not access information about a crash event or share it with others other than

  • with the consent of the vehicle owner or, if the vehicle is leased, with the consent of the lessee,
  • in response to an official request of police or similar government office,
  • as part of GM’s defense of litigation through the discovery process, or
  • as required by law.

In addition, once GM collects or receives data, GM may

  • use the data for GM research needs,
  • make it available for research where appropriate confidentially is to be maintained and need is shown, or
  • share summary data which is not tied to a specific vehicle with non-GM organizations for research purposes.

As I’ve discussed previously on this topic, the introduction of black boxes into vehicles might violate the contextual integrity of the flow of personal information in the context of highway travel.

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