Black Boxes Are No Longer Just for Planes

A black box, also known as the Cockpit Recorder or Flight Data Recorder, documents all of the data transmissions on an airplane, such as altitude, air speed, and voice and sound transmissions.  Typically, black boxes aren’t black at all.  They are brightly colored, which makes them easier to find in the wreckage following an accident.

Everyone knows that airplanes have black boxes.  What you may not know, however, is that your car may have one too.  This box, which is approximately the size of a carpenter’s tape measure, is installed in about 70 percent of all new car models.  It is usually fitted under your dashboard or seat, and it kicks into high gear when your car’s airbags are deployed.

These event data recorders (EDR) as they are known, can record information only in the 5 to 10 seconds before and after it senses an airbag is about to be deployed.  EDRs record the following data:

 

  • Vehicle speed
  • Engine speed 
  • Brake status
  • Throttle position
  • If the driver’s seat belt is on or off
  • If the passenger’s airbag is on or off
  • If the IR Warning Lamp is on or off
  • Time from vehicle impact to airbag deployment
  • Ignition cycle count at time of the crash
  • Ignition cycle count at investigation 
  • Maximum velocity before deployment
  • Velocity vs. time for frontal airbag deployment
  • Time from vehicle impact to time of maximum velocity
  • Time between the air bags about to deploy and deployment if it is within five seconds

 

Insurance carriers and police officers use the information gathered by the box to reconstruct the events leading up to a crash.  General Motors has been installing black boxes in their cars since 1999, and several other car manufacturers have been installing them since 1996.  Crash investigators, insurers, police and government researchers say such information is the cornerstone to learning how to build safer cars.  Privacy advocates say EDRs are a way to obtain data that can be used to incriminate drivers.

The controversial practice of installing black boxes in cars will become even more hotly contested when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issues a new rule in 2006, requiring carmakers to standardize black box technology.  The standardization will necessitate that all data is recorded and stored in the same way, which will make it is easier for researchers to recover the information.  However, only a few states have addressed the privacy concerns associated with black boxes and have enacted laws that ensure the car owner’s ownership rights to the data.

8 thoughts on “Black Boxes Are No Longer Just for Planes

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