NHTSA to Call for Mandatory ‘Black Boxes'

May 31, 2011

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
is expected to call for mandatory installation of "black boxes" in automobiles in
June, and engineering groups are weighing in on which data the boxes should
collect and who should access it.

 NHTSA to Call for Mandatory ‘Black Boxes’

The black
boxes, also known as event data recorders (EDRs), are fast becoming a center of
controversy because officials from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics
Engineers (IEEE) want to ensure that the data from the devices is secure.

"When the
vehicle crashes, we want to make sure that the first person who gets access to
the data is the owner," says Tom Kowalick, chairman of IEEE Global Standards
for Motor Vehicle EDRs, as well as an author of seven books on EDR technology.
"Right now, no data is secure. There are 20,000 tow-aways in America every day,
and none of them has secure data."

engineers see this as the right time to bring up the issue, because NHTSA
recently introduced a notice of proposed rulemaking that would call for
mandatory EDRs. The EDR mandate is
expected to go to the Office of the Secretary of Transportation on June 15.

IEEE has petitioned
NHTSA to incorporate a set of standards known as IEEE 1616 and IEEE 1616a into the EDR
description. The IEEE standards call for EDRs to use 86 data elements, up from
15 on a voluntary standard that NHTSA created in 2006.

Of primary
concern is the issue of data security. Right now, data can be easily collected
by anyone using a data retrieval system that links up to a vehicle's onboard
diagnostics (OBD-II) connector. Devices such as Bosch Diagnostics' well-known Crash
Data Retrieval (CDR) systems "image" the data in the black box and then make
that data image downloadable to professionals with the right software tools. As
a result, automobile manufacturers, insurance investigators, accident
reconstruction experts and law enforcement agencies often have access to a
vehicle's data before the owner does. Moreover, owners rarely have any idea
what's stored in the device, and don't understand how the readout tools work.

readout tools are readily available through third parties," says Sean Kane,
president of Safety Research and
Strategies Inc.
, a private research firm that serves as an advocate on
motor vehicle and safety matters. "Anybody with any tech savvy can obtain the
download tools for any car. That's really troubling."

advocates believe that manufacturers and insurance investigators have altered
EDR data in some cases, and will do it again in the future if given the chance.
"You wouldn't believe how people can change data," Kowalick says. "They can
tamper with it so it shows you were doing 112 mph in a 25-mph zone. All we want
is that at the time of the crash, the data is sealed."

Securing the Data

Many automakers have been incorporating the so-called black boxes in their
vehicles for more than a decade. The technology, which became quietly available
in the early 1990s as a means of monitoring airbags, enables automakers to
determine such parameters as vehicle speed, engine speed, throttle position,
force of impact, steering wheel angle, airbag deployment, seat belt usage and braking
status at the time of an impact. Government agencies see the scientific data as
a means of studying accidents, especially in cases such as Toyota's highly publicized
unintended acceleration.

 NHTSA to Call for Mandatory ‘Black Boxes’

Today, 91.6 percent of vehicles
sold in the U.S. are believed to incorporate EDRs, according to a baseline
figure published by NHTSA. Most automakers incorporate the EDR in the airbag control
module, but a few integrate it in with the powertrain controller. Most EDRs can
be accessed through the onboard diagnostics connector (OBD-II), usually located
within about 3 ft of the steering wheel.

Experts believe, however, that the
OBD-II connector can be accessed too easily by individuals other than the car's
owner. Moreover, the proprietary nature of the devices often requires that data
be accessed by the vehicle's manufacturer.

"Right now, if you want to get a
reading, there's a chance you'll have to turn everything over to the
manufacturer," Kane says. "And we've found that there are sometimes
inconsistencies in the EDR data. We've seen it time and time again."

Kowalick wants to solve the problem
by incorporating a mechanical lockout device. He is the founder of a company
that makes Crash-Guard, a mechanical lock-and-key
product that sits on the OBD-II connector and allows the owner to determine who
sees the data and when they see it.

"The mechanical lockout is a
no-brainer," Kowalick says. "Once all these light vehicles have event data
recorders, there will inevitably be attempts by people to tamper with the

Some experts, however, say that the
lock on the OBD-II connector will only stop the first tier of data retrieval
attempts. Determined crash investigators, they say, have other ways of
obtaining the data they seek, without using the OBD-II connector. Bosch
Diagnostics, for example, offers a data retrieval product for situations in
which the OBD-II connector is damaged or can't be accessed. "We also make
cables and connectors to get data directly from the module itself," says Dan
Walker, crash data retrieval business manager for Bosch Diagnostics. "An
investigator can get the data directly from the connector on the module, and we
know quite a few investigators who do that."

Still, IEEE's goal is to get the
NHTSA mandate to employ standards that would make the data that comes from the
EDR as scientific and objective as possible.

"We want NHTSA to include the 86
data elements and we want them to include the mechanical lockout," Kowalick
says. "It's all about securing the data."

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