Some drivers may not know they have an EDR, although automakers typically disclose that information in the owner’s manual. Retrieving the data, however, requires a special software to collect speed, engine rpm, brake and throttle data, among other things.
Data Is Useful to Law Enforcement
“With the name ‘black box,’ everyone thinks it’s some sort of Big Brother technology,” said Bill Rose, product manager at Bosch Diagnostics, creator of the Crash Data Retrieval System software. “But, really, it’s information that originally was stored in the airbag modules so that airbag companies and manufacturers could develop the product.”
Still, that data has proven useful to law enforcement, insurance companies and accident reconstruction companies as well. They use Bosch Diagnostics’ software, which supports vehicles made by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. They are the only companies that have licensed their proprietary technology to allow a data download. If a crash investigator wanted to access the data from a Toyota, Honda or BMW, for instance, they would have to send the “black box” to the manufacturers to get the information.
The technology has raised concerns from the beginning. In a column about the EDR in 1999, the New York Times’ William Safire wrote, “I don’t want a car that rats on me.”
At issue is who has the right to access the data in your car. Generally, state law dictates who can access the information. Law enforcement will, therefore, usually obtain a warrant or driver consent to access EDR data. But the question of privacy still remains.
“They are built into the cars,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy group. “So the general idea is how much surveillance should you be subjected to? Depending on how they’re configured, what you end up with is the possibility of the boxes recording the entire travel history of your car and therefore of you.”
Privacy advocates also question the reliability of the devices and the extent to which they are tamper-proof. Addressing that is the goal of a working group at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., the world’s largest technical professional society. The group devised the first global EDR standards in 2004, referenced by NHTSA in its regulation, and is now working on an amendment to include consumer protection against data tampering and odometer fraud.