Thursday, December 27, 2012

NTSA recommends mandatory automobile black boxes by 2014

Many automakers have voluntarily installed so-called black boxes in their vehicles already, but on Wednesday, it was reported that the National Transportation Safety Agency (NTSA) wants to mandate such event data recorders in all future automobiles sold after September of 2014.

Automobile black boxes are similar to the airline black boxes that most are familiar with. While airliners carry both a cockpit voice recorder and an event data recorder, the NTSA only wants the latter, a device that can everything from how fast your car was traveling, the number of passengers it was carrying, and even its location.

The idea of a mandatory black box is -- of course -- related to safety. Such black boxes could be key in the case of mysterious "unintended acceleration events," unknown fires, and more. Unlike the black boxes in aircraft, the automotive event data recorders would record data -- for approximately 30 seconds -- during “trigger events” such as during rapid acceleration, sudden braking, swerves, etc.

The data can either be downloaded remotely or via a physical connection, depending on how the black box is implemented. According to an announcement in the Federal Register. (.pdf), the data is to be used by manufacturers and regulators “primarily for the purpose of post-crash assessment of vehicle safety system performance.”

Translation: the data will help accident investigators figure out what happened, a la "C.S.I."

The PDF goes further, saying:
EDR data are used to improve crash and defect investigation and crash data collection quality to assist safety researchers, vehicle manufacturers, and the agency to understand vehicle crashes better and more precisely. Additionally, vehicle manufacturers are able to utilize EDR data in improving vehicle designs and developing more effective vehicle safety countermeasures.

EDR data can also be used by Advanced Automatic Crash Notification (AACN) systems to aid emergency response teams in assessing the severity of a crash and estimating the probability of serious injury before they reach the site of the crash.
However, privacy advocates warn that some might see this as an opportunity use the data for marketing or other such uses. Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said,
You should not think of this as being an opportunity to sell data to auto-insurance companies for risk evaluation. That’s a real possibility. Data is valuable.
EPIC wants the data anonymized, which makes sense. Such a step is not really necessary in an airliner, which does not belong to a driver or drivers.

David Warren (shown) invented the black box (also shown). Notably, black boxes are red, not black, so that they can be found more easily.

He was a research scientist at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne, Australia from 1952 - 1983; ironically, his father was killed in a plane crash in 1934.

In 1953, Warren was involved in the investigation of the crash of the world's first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet. There were no witnesses and no survivors.
Given that, Warren envisioned a type of automatic data recorder that could survive a crash, giving accident investigators the information needed to determine the cause of the accident, whether it was pilot error or mechanical failure.

Warren built the first flight data recorder in 1956. He died in 2010.

Obviously, with technological advances, it was only a matter of time before black boxes became part of the automobile. As noted above, some manufacturers already include such data recorders. The NTSA is seeking public comments on its proposal by Feb. 11, 2014; comments can be submitted here.

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