Automobile Black Box

Technology tells us (or anybody) all about your driving habits- - - - -

and who may have caused that wreck you were in!!!!


July 14, 2003, (pgs. 32-3)

 By: Richard J. Newman


he Corvette was totaled. Its driver, Scott Maretick, was reeling from brain trauma and other injuries that left him unable to recall what had happened. In the passenger seat, his wife, Annette, was dead. Police suspected Maretick had been racing another car and flipped the Corvette before slashing through a fence. But the other vehicle was long gone.

Several other motorists helped police piece together the April 12, 2001, crash on Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard in Scottsdale, Ariz. But perhaps the most compell-ing testimony came from a silent witness. Attached to the Corvette’s air-bag system was a computerized module— a “black box” —that recorded speed and other characteristics. The module indicated that Maretick had been traveling 114 mph just before the crash, on a street with a posted limit of 45. That was a key piece of evidence that led the Maricopa County prosecutor to charge Maretick with manslaughter. Maretick has pleaded not guilty, and the case is headed for trial this fall. (2003)

Car crashes are notoriously murky events, with little black-and-white evidence and victims whose stories can be wildly contradictory. In some fatal crashes, there are no witnesses at all. But technology is starting to fill that void. Virtually every new car sold today contains an “event data recorder,” or EDR, a cassette-tape-size gadget that stores key information like the car’s speed, deceleration, or seatbelt use once sensors detect a collision. Most car-makers encrypt the data making it inaccessible to the public But General Motors and Ford have allowed the data on their cars to be retrieved by mechanics or crash investigators with a simple hand-held device, and Toyota and other manufacturers are expected to follow within a year. Already, the info that is available is showing up in court cases and insurance investigations, forcing new tradeoffs between auto safety and individual privacy. “This is the thing to have if I’m a responsible driver,” says Rusty Haight, an accident investigation expert. “If I’m a jackass and I’m driving 105,1 should be afraid The data record-ers are typically tied in to the electronics that sense when a crash is occurring and inflate the air bags The devices store only a few seconds of information, which is continually updated. But when sensors detect a collision, the EDR freezes the data, providing a critical snapshot of what happened moments before impact.

General Motors first began installing EDR5 in the mid-1990s to monitor and improve safety systems, among other things. By the time air bags became mandatory in 1997, every car sold in the United States contained some kind of data recorder coupled to the air-bag system. Still, EDR5 vary by carmaker. GM’S devices are fairly advanced, with data on the vehicle’s speed, throttle position, brakes, and other factors. Ford’s boxes collect slightly different data, over less time. Most other manufacturers have yet to reveal what data their recorders collect, fearing a backlash from consumers outraged that their cars might tattle on them. The Transportation Department is considering whether to require all manufacturers to record a standard set of parameters—like the flight data recorders on commercial aircraft—and require public access to the data.

Benefits. Even GM has been low-key about its recorders, although they have helped identify some safety problems. In the mid-1990s, for instance, GM began getting reports about air bags deploying improperly in its Chevy Cavaliers and Pontiac Sunfires. Using data from the EDRs, GM was able to finger a problem with the air bag, which led to a recall of about 890,000 cars. Some safety experts envision broader benefits from EDRs, especially if drivers know they’re being monitored. In European studies, accidents fell by 20 percent to 30 percent among drivers who knew their vehicles had a recorder.

Automakers also foresaw the potential for EDR5 to collect evidence that could help defend against lawsuits by drivers injured in crashes. In 1998, an Illinois woman sued GM, claiming that the air bag in her Cavalier had inflated inadvertently, causing her to lose control and swerve into a van approaching from the other direction. GM’s data showed that the air bag didn’t deploy until after the car’s sensors had detected a collision—evidence that something else had caused the crash.

As EDR5 garnered attention, safety researchers, police investigators, and accident experts began clamoring for the data. Determining what has happened in a crash is often so subjective that investigators joke about the “BOGSAT” technique: bunch of guys sitting around a table. “Instead of looking at tread marks, we need to capture that data,” insists Ricardo Martinez, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “It’s time to get out of the dark ages of data.”

GM complied. In 1999, the world’s largest automaker decided to standardize the data so that mechanics or investigators with a $2,500 downloading device, produced by auto supplier Vetronix, could read it. Two years later, Ford made a similar decision. Yet resistance remains. One safety engineer at Ford, which makes about 85 percent of the police cars in the United States, says the greatest number of inquiries regarding EDR5 have actually come from police officers wanting to know how to disconnect them (the company strongly discourages this, since it disables the air bag).

Questions have also been raised as to whether EDR data are accurate or complete enough to be the basis for incriminating a driver. Darrow Soil, Scoff Maretick’s attorney, says he plans to challenge the validity of data pulled from his client’s car. Such challenges often fail, perhaps because most cases where EDR5 have played a role have involved racecourse speeds or reckless driving. In May, a Florida court convicted 46-year-old Edwin Matos of vehicular manslaughter for a 2002 crash in which his Trans Am slammed into a car backing out of a driveway, killing two teenage girls. Investigators estimated that he was traveling up to 98 mph in a 30 -mph zone. The EDR indicated that his final speeds had ranged from 103 mph to 114 mph.

Insurance companies are starting to plug into data recorders, too. Infinity Insurance, which covers high-risk motorists in 25 states, has purchased about 35 data readers for investigators and body shops that work on its claims. So far, says Infinity’s Robert Swift, “the software has more~ than paid for itself.” In one case, a driver was backing his Chevrolet Monte Carlo out of a parking space when it collided with a Dodge Ram pickup. Each driver claimed the other was at fault. But the Monte Carlo’s EDR showed that the car was not moving at the time of the collision. The other driver’s insurance company paid up.

Some uncomfortable issues remain unsettled, however. Like E-mail or phone records, EDR data belong to the car owner, unless a legal authority demands that they be turned over. But if a car is totaled, and an insurance company pays for it—effectively buying the wreck—then can the insurer use the data to decide whether to cancel the driver’s policy? Or might insurers offer discounts to drivers willing to have their driving monitored? Such readings could even be matched with satellite positioning devices that pinpoint your location 24-7. “The implications are huge,” predicts one insurance investigator. Less so if you stay at the speed limit..


I was going how fast?

 No, I’m not staring into the mirrored shades of a state trooper.

 I’m looking at an alarmingly precise computer log of my driving.

On my last trip I traveled 49.5 miles, at an average speed of 37mph. There was

one “extreme acceleration” where I exceeded .48 G’s of force. And my top

speed was—well, the average teenager would probably be back on his bicycle if the number belonged to him. This information comes courtesy of the CarChip, a $179 gizmo the size of a Bic lighter that plugs into a data port under the steering column on cars built since 1996. (That’s right - the past seven years)

Gearheads love it because it lets them download vehicle data like fuel pressure and battery voltage . But if this do-it-yourself data recorder doesn’t become a hit with panicked parents of new drivers, I’ll drive 25 forever. Once you plug it in, the CarChip ( records up to 300 hours of data before starting over. If certain measurements suggest a crash occurred, it retains more detailed data from the final 20 seconds. To download the data, you pop the chip out of the car and connect it to the back of your PC.

Those under surveillance undoubtedly will squeal about privacy. But tracking devices may soon become a rule of the road. Another monitoring device, called Drive-Cam, already is mounted to the windshield behind the rearview mirror of more than 6,000 trucks, ambulances, and other fleet vehicles. The palm-size camera continuously records the scene out the front windshield; DriveCam claimsthat its cameras help reduce crashes by 35 percent to 70 percent. And there may be a consumer version in a few years. Maybe we’d be better off staying home. (Or taking a cab.) —R.J.N.

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