Saturday, July 19, 2014

Crash Test Dummy

So I'm reading the owner's manual for my new car (Wait: did he say "new car?" Yes, I did. For those you who have followed my decision process in this space and seen fit to ask me what I finally bought, only to find out that I did nothing these long months, I finally bit the bullet. After looking and thinking and talking and thinking and reading and and and, I hung up my Jeep in favor of a – wait for it, wait for it – MINI Cooper. Countryman model, stick, four door, four wheel drive, dual sun roofs, metallic blue, sticker on the back that's says "It's not cute. It's mean." But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes: owner's manual.)

So I'm reading the owner's manual for my new car, learning about all the things that are really important on today's vehicles. Not the engine or brakes or frame stiffness; who cares about any of those? No, I need to know the details of the radio, the car's Bluetooth connectivity and capabilities of the USB jack. But as I page through the various features I come across a piece of equipment I didn't order and didn't even know was included: the Event Data Recorder or EDR. As explained, "The main purpose of an EDR is to record, in certain crash or near crash-like situations, such as an air bag deployment or hitting a road obstacle, data that will assist in understanding how a vehicle's systems performed." In short, I have a Black Box.

Most typically we associate a Black Box with trains and planes and crashes. They're the thing that investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board consider the Holy Grail in their search for answers. Typically they find one buried in the wreckage, send it to a lab to read out the data, and based on that info are able to answer the question that is on everyone's mind following an incident: "What the hell happened?"

But my new car has one? Turns out I'm not alone. Since the 1990's auto makers, led by GM and Ford, have been putting black boxes into cars on their own, the better to gather data as they seek to improve their technology and systems. Estimates are that 96% of new vehicles already have them, but even that number will go up. While the National Highway Safety Administration first proposed a rule that all cars have them back in 2006, the implementation has been delayed several times. However, it is finally set to go into effect this fall: starting September 1, all new cars will be required to carry an EDR.

The boxes record a variety of telemetry to be used by auto companies and investigators alike. These include speed, accelerator position, seat belt use, airbag deployment and a host of other data points, some 15 in all. Information like this also enables companies to analyze ongoing issues, such as the kind that led GM to recall millions of vehicles due to an ignition problem. It's likely that without said data they wouldn't have been able to pinpoint the commonality among all these incidents, though as we've seen, knowing about the problem and telling about it are two very different issues.

It's also worth noting that while the EDR records those 15 specific data points, they are hardly all the points of failure a car can have. With the myriad of advanced systems in today's vehicles, there are a multitude of other places where things can go wrong. And some not so high tech as well: Chrysler just announced a recall of nearly 900,000 SUV's because the lights on the vanity mirror can cause a fire. Who knew that letting a passenger check her lipstick at 60 mph was dangerous?

According to the manual, my EDR records this information for approximately 30 seconds, then overwrites it, just like its airplane brethren. Unlike its sibling, however, it doesn't record conversations in the cabin, though with the built-in microphone for phone connectivity one imagines it wouldn't be that wouldn't hard to arrange. And while it would be a major privacy breach, one can only imagine how auto insurance companies are salivating over that possibility: "I'm sorry ma'am, but we're denying your claim of swerving to avoid a deer because we heard you just before the crash saying ‘I'm texting Judy the address of the OH MY GOD!'"


Marc Wollin of Bedford misses his Jeep a little. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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