Is Big Brother Heading to Your Car?

Black BoxFlight recorders have been in use for many decades and provide essential data used to investigate the cause of a plane crash in order to prevent future incidents. These boxes are large, orange (to facilitate recovery), and capable of recording everything from instrument readings to voices within the cockpit. If federal regulators have their way, every car sold in the US may have a similar technology pre-installed by 2014.

The National Transportation Safety Agency is set to make a decision on these proposals in February. If the proposed measure passes, the federal government will require every car to record 15 different data points with additional data possible depending on a vehicle’s make and model. These include the speed a vehicle is traveling, throttle voltage, brake lights, ignition, number of passengers, seat belt status, and potentially even the location of the vehicle itself.

None of the information provided in initial proposal documentation includes audio from the vehicle itself, but this wouldn’t be an impossible feature to add by any means.

This “black box” would be triggered by sudden acceleration, braking, sharp turns, and hard bumps. It will remain on and recording for a period of about 30 seconds in the event that such a red flag is followed by a collision.

Privacy advocates would argue that this type of device could serve as a tool for prosecution or for insurance agencies to deny claims based on information presented in the recordings. This would, of course, make it very difficult to plead your case for an accident if the record showed that sudden acceleration preceded the collision. Unfortunately, the box wouldn’t do much to explain why the acceleration happened, only that it happened. Insurance companies are known for denying claims based on technicalities, and this would be one very useful tool for them to do so.

Whether the government uses data collected by these devices to crack down on drivers is one issue, but another is what exactly these devices would solve. Could they really prevent an accident in the future? Running a red light or changing lanes while someone is in your blind spot will happen regardless, and we already know what the more common causes of accidents might be.

For a black box to really help put a stop to vehicular incidents, it should record any possible malfunctions happening within the vehicle at the time of incident. Right now, we rely on dumb lights and sensors to do the job for us and they’re often unreliable. It takes an onboard computer to understand what’s setting off the engine light, and even then it will only tell you which sensor is picking up on the problem.

Perhaps this energy would be better spent in an effort to improve these sensors and make a vehicle’s hardware safer and more reliable than recording every movement and habit of a driver. I can’t see much use for these boxes other than in prosecution or giving some sense of understanding to the families of victims of auto accidents.

Depending on the model, black boxes will be readable remotely. In an extreme case, a toll booth could collect and report your top speeds and number of sudden stops to the powers that be.

What do you think? Should our cars be reporting our usage habits to the government, or should this time and energy be spent solving other issues?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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