November 11, 2003
Ireland First To Require Car Flight Data Recorders

Modelled after aircraft flight data recorders that are used to record crash information car data recorders are now cheap enough to become widely used.

On Nov. 6, Ireland's Transportation Minister announced an agreement to outfit the nation's vehicles with black-box data recorders and link them to an emergency notification system. Under the agreement, Safety Intelligence Systems (SIS), a private New York-based company, will partner with IBM (IBM ) as its exclusive information-technology provider, to supply the boxes and build a comprehensive crash-data network.

The data recorders can use cellular links to automatically phone in location recorded from a built-in GPS sensor. The recorders can report location, pattern of deceleration leading up to the end of the accident, and other information that can be used to determine the likelihood of occupant injury.

Insurance companies in the US may eventually offer discounts to drivers who agree to install recorders. The recorded information has many uses and not just from accidents. Picture recording and reporting of all vehicles that come down an off-ramp to measure whether the vehicles have a problem decelerating in the length of ramp available and whether vehicles tend to slide on a particular ramp or road curve when road surfaces are wet.

There are of course privacy concerns about the use of this sort of technology. But even if individuals resist allowing recorders to be placed in their own cars or place limits on what can be done with the data from their own cars the privacy issue will play out differently for fleet vehicles. An operator of a fleet of delivery vehicles would love to know whether any driver drives too quickly, tends to wait too long to decelerate, tends to accelerate thru intersections (a sign of running lights just turning red), or takes side trips that are not on the approved route. Fleet operators will probably be more willing to provide insurance companies with greater access to recorded data in exchange for lower rates. One can imagine a day when insurance companies will routinely come to fleet operators to demand that particular reckless drivers be fired before they cause accidents. One can also imagine how insurance companies will be able to develop databases of driver behavior and even make hiring recommendations to fleet operators based on the performance of those drivers in previous jobs.

Fleet data recorders could also provide useful information about driving patterns that lower gas mileage or increase tire wear or general vehicle wear. But fleet operators are not the only vehicle owners who will want to collect data on the driving of others. How about parents who want to monitor the driving behavior of their teenage kids? Here's a future conversation that will eventually take place many times: "You can't have a car unless the car has a very high capacity recording device". What's the kid going to do, say no? Here's a case where there would be no government or insurance company involvement where it would be hard to argue against it on civil liberties grounds. Do parents not have a right to monitor their kids in this manner?

A really smart box that was monitoring g force shifts and direction might even be able to detect drivers impaired by drugs, alcohol, or some other factor and the box could report this while the driving trip was taking place. Police could be summoned with a continuously updating position and direction of the vehicle. Or the vehicle could be ordered to shut down or at least to slow down to some low maximum speed.

Of course, in the longer run the computers will gradually take over driving responsibilities. This has already begun in a limited manner with ABS and even with airbag deployment. But more work could be done. For instance, a computer could detect a traffic light changing color or even be told by a radio signal that the light has changed color. Then the computer could flash a light or otherwise indicate to the driver that he is too close to the intersection to make it thru safely. Also, computers could be told that a traffic accident or fog is up ahead and alert a driver of the need to slow down and of where the exact danger lies. Also, a driver could be given optional adaptive cruise control (and this has already been tested - deployed anywhere?) that would decelerate a vehicle in order to maintain some maximum distance from the car in front.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 November 11 01:23 PM  Surveillance Society

Patrick said at November 11, 2003 11:14 PM:

Would a computer that monitors a teenagers driving behaviour work any better than a lock that stops kids from surfing unwanted web sites? I mean you are pitting the parents use of an electronic device against the kids desire to circumvent it.

Same goes for monitoring of cars for adults. The number of times I've been sitting on the highway at 120 km/h and been passed by a truck displaying a sign that says "100 speed limited" a sign that in Australia means that the truck in question has been fitted with a 100 km/h speed limiter (which has associated legal benifits). Clearly the limiter is effective for as long as it takes the driver to hack the system.

Randall Parker said at November 12, 2003 8:48 AM:

Pat, How easy it would be to defeat would depend on part on how well integrated it is into the rest of the electronics of the car. If I wanted to make it hard to defeat I'd make the recorder part of the engine computer. They'd have to get a completely different controller for the engine with a complete working program in order to defeat it. That's be beyond the financial resources and skills of the vast bulk of kids.

The trucks you describe (and Australians do not call them lorries?) probably had a speed limited tacked on. But build it into the car computer and it becomes harder to defeat.

Patrick said at November 12, 2003 11:10 PM:

I agree an integrated system might prove too difficult to circumvent for kids. Not for adults though.

And no, Australians do not have "lorries". That'll be the English you're thinking of. We have trucks, semis, B-doubles and road trains (the last with 3 or more trailers behind the same truck).

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