Monday, January 03, 2011

Who Owns Auto Black Box Data and Related Questions

Sunday's LA Times had an interesting article about a topic I didn't even know existed:  black boxes in cars.  That is, the auto equivalent of airplane black boxes that store data that can be used to figure out why an accident occurred.

It seems that

  • Some car manufacturers do put black boxes in cars
  • They don't record a lot of data
  • The car companies claim they own the data and don't need to make it public
The article is about two men - Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and Tom Kowalick, a college professor whose dad died in a car accident - who had both learned about these boxes in the early 1990's, met each other, and teamed up to develop a protocol (as co-chairs of an IEEE committee) for mandatory black boxes.
Hall and Kowalick did succeed in publishing a 171-page standard under IEEE sponsorship in 2005 that described how automakers should design an EDR. An update was approved in 2010.
Under their standard, automakers would record 86 different streams of data — including whether a motorist was using a turn signal before a crash, and the acceleration forces in every direction that affect a vehicle in a rollover. (LA Times online article p. 2)

As mentioned above, some companies do put black boxes in their cars, but they have very little information which they don't share.
Toyota was among the most aggressive automakers in claiming control of the encrypted EDR data in its vehicles, and refused to provide downloads to its customers. After catching national attention last year for sudden acceleration problems, the company agreed to provide 10 EDR readers to federal officials. But the tools are not yet available to accident investigators across the country.
The obstacles are listed in the article:

But their quest has led into a thicket of legal, constitutional and economic issues. They encountered arguments about
  • who would own the data, 
  • its impact on defect lawsuits, 
  • whether computers would incriminate drivers, 
  • the cost effect on manufacturers and 
  • patent rights over the design of the systems.
[I've reformatted this into bullets so it's easier to read]
It seems that everyone agrees that black boxes in airplanes have yielded valuable information for making safety changes which have saved countless lives plus the costs of lost airplanes and all the collateral costs.

But what interested me most was the issue of ownership of the data.  You buy a car.  It has a little computer in it that records information about the vehicle which could be useful after a crash (for you individually and for all car drivers collectively).

But the automakers claim the information on the computer they sold with the car, belongs to them. 

That's problematic to me.  Clearly this is related to what you can do with with the content of movies and music you buy.  And your rights to your own medical data. 

I think the real answer is that people know about these things and have an opportunity to choose between vehicles that have black boxes with
  •  just a little info, or
  •  the Hall and Kowalick standards
And whether the data is
  •  corporate owned, or
  • purchaser owned

The auto companies have developed an alternative system, but it isn't mandatory.

In response to Hall and Kowalick, automakers developed their own standard under the authority of the Society of Automotive Engineers. It aimed mainly at standardizing existing practices.
"Everybody in the industry buys into how valuable more information about crashes can be," said Brian Everest, a General Motors manager who chairs the engineers society's committee for EDRs. But, he added, "They really haven't been around that long."
In 2006, the NHTSA issued its own regulation for EDRs that would take effect in 2012. It did not require automakers to install the devices; if an automaker voluntarily puts one in a vehicle, it would have to record only 15 data elements, not the 86 envisioned by Hall and Kowalick.
These devices are estimated at 50 cents per vehicle.  So cost isn't the issue. 

The whole article is here.


  1. As far as I'm concerned, if I purchase a vehicle that has a data recorder, then I own the car, the data recorder and the data it contains.

  2. Safer drivers will build up a history of data to prove it. They will also benefit from reduced per mile charges.


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