Published February 09, 2011
In the wake Toyota’s deadly problem with sticking accelerators, a government proposal that would require new cars to have onboard data recorders is pitting safety concerns against privacy concerns.
The Department of Transportation and the National Highway Transportation Administration have found that faulty electronics did not cause the accelerator problems that led to 50 deaths and the 8 million Toyota recalls last year. They arrived at that conclusion based partly on “event data recorders” installed in the vehicles.
The recorders are similar to the “black boxes” that provide so much valuable information in the wake of a plane crash. Installed in an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of new car models, the devices record data such as acceleration, braking, fuel flow and operation of airbags.
At a news conference Tuesday, Highway Administrator David Strickland said that in the short term, his agency will consider new rulemaking that would “require the installation of Event Data Records in passenger vehicles.”
The main concern of the government is safety, and the American Automobile Association applauds the new push for the recorders.
AAA spokesman Justin McNaull says the recorders, “will allow safety researchers to vastly improve their understanding of what happens during crashes; and, of finding out what's happening in the vehicle-- how the driver's interacting with it-- in the seconds leading up to the crash, during the crash and in the seconds following the crash.”
This, he says, will allow engineers to save lives by designing safer cars.
The Transportation Department said in a statement, “These event data recorders are crucial tools for investigating crashes and finding ways to prevent other dangerous crashes before they happen.”
But privacy advocates have serious concerns about devices that could be used to track the movements of American motorists.
“Individuals don't expect to be tracked, even when they're on public roads, with someone able to watch their every movement when they go to church, when they go to the bank, when they go to a political protest, when they go about their daily business.” said John Verdi of the Electronic Information Privacy Agency,
Because some of the new recorders have GPS and can transmit information over a wireless network, Verdi worries the devices could become a tool of “pervasive surveillance” without the knowledge of the driver or the owner of the car.
His organization has submitted testimony to the Highway Administration noting that it’s “important to preemptively establish privacy protections.”
Verdi says current federal and state laws require that car buyers be told what kind of recording system they’re getting, but they don’t spell out who owns the data that’s being kept. He says it should belong solely to the owner of the car, not to the manufacturer, and that it should be publicly obtained only through a court order in the course of an accident investigation.
“We need to have regulations and safeguards in place that ensure that drivers own and control that data,” said Verdi. “If we don't have that baseline privacy protection it means that law enforcement can track the movements of tens of thousands of drivers, or even millions of drivers, on a routine basis and access that information whenever they like in a database.”
Another concern is that the addition of the recorders could drive up the price of new cars. AAA discounts that concern.
“The cost is minimal,” says AAA's McNaull, “since the onboard computers on cars already gather a tremendous amount of data, and the addition of an electronic recording device is not difficult or expensive.”
The Transportation Department doesn’t have cost estimates for the proposal.