Black Boxes: The Promise and the Problems

By Edward Cammarato July 18, 2011

Major auto manufacturers are now building event data recorders (EDRs) — or black boxes — into our cars. Like an airplane’s flight data recorder, an automobile EDR is designed to prove exactly what happened in the moments leading up to and right after an “event,” such as an accident.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a rule requiring all EDRs installed in new cars after September 1, 2012, to capture data in the same way. The rule requires EDRs to record 15 specific data elements. The rule also gives requirements for recording 30 other data elements if the manufacturers voluntarily configure their EDRs to capture them.

As John Brandon discusses in his piece Black Boxes Becoming More Common in Cars, EDRs have a lot of potential uses. Brandon offers a number of imaginative scenarios for what law enforcement, insurers, and others might do with the devices. And here’s good news: EDR data is not very interesting to potential hackers who may be trying to steal our personal information.

Unlike mobile tracking devices (see my blog post on mobile tracking devices and their potential for fighting fraudulent claims), EDRs continuously overwrite their recorded data as you drive. They save the data only in case of an event. NHTSA’s data elements tables give specific time intervals for recording each data element. For most data elements, the maximum recording time is five seconds or less.

EDRs aren’t perfect. Like all measuring devices, the sensors have certain tolerances. Replacement tires or rims of a different size from the original can affect the accuracy of speed measurements. A severe crash can cause a loss of electrical power to the vehicle, stopping the data recording. And the data needs expert interpretation. But in any case, the information recoverable from an EDR is likely to provide a great deal of value. When substantially all cars have the devices, the days of relying solely on police scene reconstruction, less-than-truthful drivers, and unreliable and biased witnesses will be a thing of the past.

Insurers may find ways to use EDR data to help them understand what occurred before, during, and after a crash. However, questions remain about who owns the data and who can get access to it. Such questions could be the subject of litigation for years to come. And some states are passing laws affecting ownership of the data and access to it.

Verisk Analytics will continue to monitor this emerging field. We’ll keep you posted on the technical advances — as well as the legal and social questions. And we’ll study and report on the insurance implications as EDR data becomes more reliable, standardized, and available.