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."

IEEE
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.

"Increasingly,
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."

Consumer
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,

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