SC Lawyer, Sept. 2004, #2. Big brother or big savior? Here comes the black box.

AuthorBy Mark Joye

South Carolina Lawyer


SC Lawyer, Sept. 2004, #2.

Big brother or big savior? Here comes the black box

South Carolina LawyerSeptember 2004Big brother or big savior? Here comes the black boxBy Mark JoyeThese days, when there is a plane crash, all attention is given to locating the "black box" to find out what happened and hopefully to discover what went wrong. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, plane hijackings, we all wanted to hear the cockpit voice recorder and see the data from digital flight recorders. Any time something bad happens, such as a crash, we want to discover the "hows" and "whys" so that the event might be explained and hopefully avoided in the future. With the advent of the event data recorder (EDR), commonly called the "black box," we increasingly turn to them for some of these answers.

An EDR is a device some manufacturers install in a motor vehicle to record vehicle and occupant-based information for a brief period of time (seconds, not minutes) before, during and after a crash. Some systems collect only vehicle acceleration/deceleration data (speed before and at impact); others collect the same information in addition to other data, such as driver input (braking, steering, seatbelt use) and vehicle systems status (anti-lock brakes, air bag deployment, traction control). This information is useful in investigating the causes of a crash, the injury mechanism and for better defining safety problems. Ideally, the information can be used to improve motor vehicle safety.

The technology of recording and saving data from an "event" such as an automobile collision can be traced back to the 1970s. Early efforts to equip vehicles with EDRs began in 1974. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) installed analog disc recorders in approximately 1,000 vehicles to process and record crash parameters in fairly low speed crashes. Starting in the mid- 1980s, a new technology was introduced into vehicle systems that greatly aided the expansion and use of black boxes. The technology, electrically erasable programable read-only memory (EEPROM) is non-volatile, which means that after data is written to it, the data is retained even when the power source is disconnected. This technology was first used in electronic odometers that saved the vehicle's cumulative mileage, even if the battery was disconnected. William Rosenbluth, Investigation & Interpretation of Black Box Data in Automobiles: A Guide to the Concepts and Formats of Computer Data in Vehicle Safety and Control Systems (Society of Auto. Engineers, 2001).

As vehicles became more dependent on computers to run various systems, manufacturers built data recorders into them. Initially, the recorders were included for repairmen to diagnose problems with the engine. Electronic fuel injection computers gathered data to measure and manage engine fuel consumption. Anti-lock brakes, another major safety feature on cars, featured a computer that measured individual wheel speeds and reduced brake fluid pressure to the wheel to prevent it from locking up, thereby giving increased directional control. Other black box computers receiving and storing data in vehicles included ones for traction control, cruise control, power train, seat belt tensioners and suspension control.

The 1990s were the real start of the use of black boxes in vehicles. When air bags began to make their way into vehicles, those vehicles needed a computer to measure the acceleration forces for a vehicle involved in a crash and electrically deploy the air bags.

General Motors (GM) began installing black boxes in some of its air bag equipped vehicles in 1990. In 1994, the boxes were...

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