What your car knows about you
Automotive companies love to boast about the technology in their new vehicles: Bluetooth, rear-view cameras and seats that automatically revert back to how they were set. But there is one technological advance they don't often discuss: The black box.
Part of it is psychological. A black box serves the same gloomy function on a car or truck that it does on an airplane: It "remembers" what happens immediately before, during and after a crash, which the driver may not, or may not want to. Like DNA found at a crime scene, it is the unerring witness to tragedy.
But there's another reason. It could be the ultimate back-seat driver looking over your shoulder. The black box can tell your auto insurance company things that you wouldn't want it to know.
When former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine's Chevrolet Suburban became entangled with a red pickup truck while speeding to meet with radio personality Don Imus, the black box clocked his car at 91 miles per hour and also knew that Corzine was not wearing a seat belt.
Similarly, Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray was caught by black box data when he crashed his state-owned Ford Crown Victoria into a rock ledge going almost 100 miles per hour. It showed that Murray didn't brake or try to steer away from the ledge, and that he too wasn't seat belted in.
The car whisperer
These days the mechanic who services your vehicle is a "car whisperer." He or she can hear things that only become evident to the driver when the vehicle starts to sputter or stall.
To service most modern vehicles your mechanic simply plugs a computer into the data entry port, usually found at the base of the steering wheel, to learn when an oil change is warranted, how much brake pad is left or when to do a tune up.
While every vehicle make is different, there's a high probability that the data entry port also connects to a sensor in the driver's air bag. This sophisticated sensor is constantly "looping," or overwriting itself, usually after the vehicle has been started three or four times.
But during a crash it will record up to a 20-second history of the vehicle's speed, direction of the wheels and whether the brakes were applied when the airbag was deployed.
The data game
So who owns the data? In theory, the owner of the vehicle. But after an accident almost everyone wants access to it. Law enforcement can subpoena it. Toyota needed it to help prove that its problem with unintended acceleration was mostly a misplaced floor mat and/or the driver pushing down on the gas pedal mistaking it for the brake.
And car insurers want to know who is at fault and how badly passengers are injured. Measuring acceleration and deceleration (how fast you come to a stop) simulates the "jolt" that the driver sustains from the accident and whether neck injuries such as "whiplash" are likely real.
But should everyone have access?
"It could benefit a lot of people who have evidence that they're not at fault," says spokesperson Lynne McChristian of the Insurance Information Institute, which represents the industry. Insurers themselves declined to talk about it.
"And if you don't turn it over," she points out, "that says something, too -- like refusing a breathalyzer."
But others see serious danger to consumers in that black box. The "codes" generated by the box, and what they mean, sometimes are not released to customers by the automakers, forcing the vehicle's owner to have it repaired at costlier dealerships.
"We think that any information generated by a person's vehicle belongs to the vehicle's owner and should be made available to the owner without extra charge," says spokesperson Robert Sinclair of the American Automobile Association (AAA).
Like Sinclair, the director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, Robert Hunter, also sees privacy issues with the black box because it can be used to monitor the driver's movements.
"Data given to third parties should be limited to specific circumstances, such as investigating the commission of a crime," he says. Hunter feels that consumers should be able to "turn off" the device when they feel it violates their privacy.
But that's not easy. In some instances even disconnecting the airbag won't stop the black box from working. Someone who works for a car insurance company can access the black box just by having the right software, which is made by Bosch, and plugging a laptop into the data entry port, says Scott Palmer, the CEO of Injury Sciences LLC. Palmer's firm is now owned by CCC Information Services, which works for the automotive claims and collision repair industries.
If necessary, the black box can be removed and read remotely, he adds.
The biggest issue is legality. Thirteen states have ruled on whether an insurer can gain access to this data. The common denominator in these laws is that insurance companies need owner permission to access this data. For the rest of the states, says Palmer, it's "the wild, wild west."
And there are variations even among the 13 states. Arkansas says the data belongs to the vehicle's owner "at the time of the accident." California simply says "the vehicle owner." This means that if the vehicle is totaled and bought by the insurer, it now has access to the black box, unless it was removed.
The position taken by Palmer's company is clear: "We don't get access if the vehicle owner doesn't want us to." But here's the rub: The insurers that use Palmer's firm have a clause in their policies giving them the right to access the vehicle owner's black box.
Four states have limited an insurer's right to include such a clause, while others have not. So read the fine print of your auto insurance policy if privacy is a concern.
Privacy is road kill
The black box became big news last year when the White House approved a plan that would require all future cars and trucks to have the device after Congress failed to pass such legislation. A Department of Transportation spokesperson said that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is in the middle of "rulemaking," which would not be a final rule, but a proposal.
"As with all rulemaking processes, the agency will analyze public feedback and then the next step would be to work towards a final rule," she said.
But in reality, due to previous NHTSA rulings, black boxes are already installed in most vehicles and, as Forbes magazine puts it, "privacy concerns seem like road kill." This year alone at least 96 percent of new vehicles will have them, and the NHTSA is requiring up to 45 data points to be recorded, according to its website.
So what's next? Will every driver have a vehicle computer that's sniffing for alcohol or watching for texting?
"How we use all this technology will be determined down the road," says McChristian.
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