Sunday, December 9, 2012

Black Boxes For Your Shiney Metal Boxes

Is anyone ready for some startling news out of Washington DC.

Our Federal regulators are making ready some new rules which will require event data recorders - also called "black boxes" - in all new cars and light trucks. Currently 91.6 percent of all U.S. autos have them. Since automakers have been surreptitiously doing this for years - despite privacy concerns – I wonder why all the uproar now.

These devices record driver actions and vehicle response for accident investigation, or that is the stated reason for their use. With the nano-miniaturization these days, they can record well more than the last 10 seconds of active use or the 15 data types of the early models. Some investigators have identified around 80 data points which could be useful.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to release the rules in the next few days making these devices mandatory equipment and record at least 30 data types. There will be no opt-out, but many of the most popular models have had these things since the early ‘90s (about the time that they began OnStar). This information was only divulged in the last 3 months.

"Most people who are operating a motor vehicle have no idea this technology is integrated into their vehicle." said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group. I will go one better, most people who are operating a motor vehicle have no idea that they are driving a cell phone on wheels.

The fact that the auto can do a self diagnosis and call you with the results would raise many more privacy concerns than the last 10 seconds before an accident. Your auto has the ability to call OnStar (or just about anybody else) with or without alerting you first. The progress being made on driver-less vehicles is depending on this inter-vehicle communication for spacing and collision avoidance. Who knows when else they could talk between themselves. (Grillebook as a social medium, anyone?)

Despite privacy complaints, the government so far hasn't put any limits on how the information can be used. Right now there are no bounds or consequences, either to the government or any commercial venture, legal or not. Cell phone “aps” which will allow you limited operation of your auto remotely may not be as secure as they would have you believe.

Recorder data from some vehicles has already contributed to the traffic safety administration's conclusion to the problem of sticky gas pedals and floor mats that could jam them. They have also shown several high profile celebrities to have been at fault for traffic cases. Data that could be gathered from the other OnStar like systems would show where people shop, work and live, maybe that is currently being done also.

In the Senate’s transportation bill, passed earlier this year, the vehicle’s owner was designated as the owner of the required, recorded data. I wonder how much money one could get for collecting their own data and selling it on the open market. Would you be willing to sell your data for the right price? This provision was removed in a House/Senate conference negotiation, ostensibly for privacy reason but maybe to limit your ability to profit from your information This may be a slippery slope toward big government and Big Brother as noted by Rep. Bill Shuster, (R-Pa) but many of us on that slope are moving fast and picking up speed.

When I first read about this, the online comments ranged from “I'll not buy a new car again” (Well that works for Cuba) to “A powerful magnet will render it useless in no time”. Not buying a new car, in the type of urban development we have now, may be possible if very few communities and certainly not in Lexington. Being limited by the public transit systems in most places will be more unpleasant than having the insurance company know how (not where) you are driving. And speaking of the insurance companies, how do you think that they will react when they know that you have disabled a required “safety” device.

Ironically, the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers is to the government requiring recorders in all vehicles, yet I doubt that this rises from any privacy concerns. Whenever the government gets involved or legitimizes an effort that you or your industry is doing, then they get to apply arbitrary rules and direct industry standards. Not that the industry could not also make some unsavory, arbitrary rules for their own good. Who do you trust, the government or private industry?

So, the barn door is open and the Genie is almost out of the bottle. How do you feel about this: a government intrusion or apt regulation?


Alison said...

Soooo...basically the two cars we have, a 2007 and 2011 model, have this technology?

In the common internet parlance, "I can't even."

Lex Streetsweeper said...

Yes Allison, your cars have this technology and maybe some others which they have not yet shared with us. many of the new "bells and whistles" that they use to sell us these autos may have more than they are letting on. And then there is that smart phone which has a GPS, that allows many wonderful aps to work, but cannot be disabled unless you remove the battery.

Privacy concerns went out the window years ago.