Electronic Data Recorders: Liars Beware?

Several months ago, bored with waiting in the car while my wife was shopping, I dared venture where few men (or women) ever go: reading the owner manual in the glovebox.

A notice jumped from the pages at me: “Data Recording — Computers in your vehicle are capable of recording detailed data such as use of restraint systems, engine, throttle, steering, brake, or other system status.”

“This information may be used by Ford service and repair facilities, law enforcement or government agencies, or others who may assert a right or obtain your consent to know such information.”

“Holy Cow,” I said out loud to myself. “Lie detectors.”

No more dog-ate-my-homework excuses, I thought. No more claims that seat belts failed, brakes didn’t work or “I was only going 20 mph.”

Although I was dimly aware that airplane-like black boxes had been talked about for cars, they always seemed way off in the future. And, as most TCC reader regulars know, my specialty as a car nut automotive writer has been more about the past than the future.

They’re out there…

What I learned in short order was that the boiler-plate notice in our ’03 Windstar’s owner manual was included last year for the first time in all domestic Ford Motor light-vehicle owner manuals, regardless of the power of the recorders that are integral to every airbag module. Further I discovered that General Motors had been quietly including what amounts to third-generation recorders for several years.

Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (the NHTSA) has proposed regulations to take effect September 1, 2008, for Electronic Data Recorders (EDR), the more socially acceptable term for black boxes. The Feds are NOT proposing mandatory installation of these devices but instead setting out minimum standards for those being installed voluntarily by the 18 light-vehicle manufacturers supplying the U.S. market.

Importantly, the proposal also is NOT directed at settling arguments among crash participants, but actually facilitating potential major advances in highway safety.

I make these two points right up front to deflect the panic of civil rightists from both left and right who’ve been obsessed with visions of Big Brother or black helicopters arising from EDRs.

(Note: if you want to make a comment to the NHTSA on EDRs, you must do so by August 13. I hope that after reading this you will endorse the proposed rulemaking.)

Where they’ve been

With those issues hopefully put to bed, let’s get first to the history of these recording devices, take a look at where we are today and then where we are going.

As noted above briefly, “vehicle” data recorders have been around for several decades. Aircraft recorders, which include cockpit and radio-transmission voice recording as well as system operations, have been invaluable in solving crash mysteries, leading in many cases to operational, maintenance, and design changes.

More recently, such recorders have been installed in railroad locomotives and some heavy-duty commercial vehicles, where they have been somewhat controversial for disparate reasons unrelated to passenger cars.

And, just in case you wondered, the new NHTSA proposal does NOT address heavy vehicles like highway tractors or even school buses, which will be subject of separate proposals.

In cars, some form of data recording has been involved since the first installation of airbags in the mid-’70s. It is not clear that every vehicle maker’s airbags included a recorder in its control module, but unquestionably GM has led the way in both technology and installation.

The NHTSA now estimates that 65 to 90 percent of vehicles on the road in the U.S. have some degree of EDR.

Phase one pioneer data recorders in airbag modules apparently only noted whether vehicle deceleration was sufficient to trigger airbag deployment and whether the driver seat belt was fastened at that instant. Generally, the trigger was set at the front-barrier-crash equivalent of 12-15 mph, or about 2g. Notably, this onset speed was strictly a guess.

There was no way to know what the correct speed should be because no one really knew at what speed crashes actually occurred, only what crash investigators surmised. Nor was there any way of really knowing at what point airbag protection was required to minimize rather than, as it turned out in some cases, aggravate injuries.

Thus, motorists, regulators, safety advocates, crash investigators, insurers, litigators, and engineers, however well-meaning, were all flying in the dark. Injuries — including fatalities — to some occupants by early airbag deployments in low-speed impacts have been well publicized and resulted in “smart bags.”

But crash repair costs also have been hugely elevated — say from $2500 to $3200 in addition to just the impact damage — to replace bag modules, instrument panels, and even windshields in crashes where deployment may not have been necessary. This is an important issue, especially to insurance companies and your premiums, and further documents the need for better data.

Right here, right now

As the need and technology for more sophisticated airbags evolved in the Nineties, there were three important developments.

First, GM developed more extensive in-vehicle measurement and recording of crash events. Progressively the elements of impact speed, change in velocity (“delta V” to techies, “crash pulse” to the NHTSA), braking and throttle operation were added. Moreover, they were recorded in a continuous time loop to capture data from five seconds prior to airbag deployment. GM began including crash-pulse data in 1994. This became the second phase of EDRs.

Significantly, in 1991, the NHTSA’s Special Crash Investigations program began working with GM and later other manufacturers to use EDR info. Through 1997, EDR information had been used in some 40 crashes by the NHTSA unit.

Today that investigation number is “more than 2000 crashes,” according to the NHTSA. But until year 2000, only manufacturers possessed the data and systems to download from EDRs.

Second, in 1996 GM launched its OnStar system of vehicle-to-base communications that eventually tied into automatic notification of airbag deployment. Don’t be misled chortling over the current rash of “BlondeStar” satires of OnStar advertising. A friend of mine, one-time journalist and later GM public relations exec, crashed his Cadillac and was momentarily dazed, to be awakened by the OnStar operator checking to see if an ambulance was needed. It was.

The NHTSA looks to the time when the link between airbag deployment and OnStar-type communications will tell emergency personnel at remote locations the extent of crash pulses involved. This is critical to saving lives because it enables emergency dispatchers to rate the priority of EMS need and emergency room physicians to know the degree of injury that might be involved.

And third, GM worked with a California service diagnostics company, Vetronix, to develop software and hardware for convenient downloading of data stored in the EDRs. All the stored crash event data is no good in solving mysteries and improving safety if it isn’t crashworthy, tinker-proof and readily accessible. In 2000, Vetronix introduced a $2500 interface module for law enforcement agencies, crash investigators, and others legally entitled to access EDRs via laptop computers. Some EDR information is downloadable from GM vehicles dating back to certain 1994 models.

GM went across the board — at least for its entire domestic light vehicles and Isuzu — with full-power third-generation EDRs in 2000 models. These can record engine speed, braking, throttle position, vehicle speed, belt use, and airbag readiness in the five seconds before the crash pulse triggers airbag deployment or even for an event not quite serious enough to fire the airbag.

Ford began working with Vetronix for downloading of some data from certain 2001 models forward, generally installing the equivalent of third-generation units as all-new vehicles have come on line — Thunderbird, Lincoln LS, Jaguar S-type, F-150, and the new ‘05 models being introduced over the next couple of months.

Chrysler Group told TCC its ’05 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum are its first to have full-scale EDRs. And Toyota reports that all its ’05 models except Scion xA and xB, Lexus IS300, Tacoma, Tundra, and GX470 have EDRs. These black boxes are mounted under the seat, behind the center console or in the instrument panel, varying from one vehicle to another.

Initially Vetronix’s Crash Data Recovery (CDM) module only worked with GM and some Ford vehicles, but Chrysler and Toyota are coming on board. It takes many months for Vetronix to process the algorithms, or data codes, provided by auto companies into common software data capable of being downloaded by crash investigators.

The Michigan State Police, for instance, have only four Vetronix CDMs while the California Highway Patrol has eight. They are used only in crash investigations likely to lead to serious criminal charges such as vehicular homicide.

Nevertheless, one consequence has been the start of a body of truly scientific crash reconstructions and case histories. Examples are quite interesting. In a Florida criminal case, a defendant charged with vehicular homicide because of excessive speed was exonerated by EDR evidence showing that no speeding by the defendant was involved. But in another Florida fatal crash case, a defendant’s claim he was not speeding in his Corvette was contradicted by EDR evidence his speed was 106 mph at impact.

Mandate or not?

Through the 1990s, realizing the potential of EDRs, many other actors were getting into the picture. These included familiar Washington advocacy organizations, technical societies — interested in establishing common technical standards — and government agencies such as the advisory National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is separate from the NHTSA regulatory arm. This past week the NTSB added its opinion that EDRs should be installed in all vehicles as standard equipment, though the board has not formally proposed any data standard for the devices.

Private citizens petitioned the NHTSA to mandate EDRs while other groups worried about EDRs creating privacy or constitutional issues. Advocates insisted motorists had a right to know their actions were being monitored. In response, California enacted a law last September requiring that all EDR-equipped vehicles sold in that state and manufactured after July 1, 2004 must provide notice to owners. No doubt that influenced Ford to start putting its lawyerly notice in 2003-model owner manuals and a more eloquent GM notice (see accompanying text).

In any event, the NHTSA has now issued its proposed standards for EDRs. They require (1) minimum set of specified data elements, (2) common technical specifications for that data, (3) demonstrated EDR survivability in crash tests, (4) vehicle manufacturers make the recorded data accessible publicly for crash investigators to retrieve, and (5) standardized owner manual language concerning the devices.

Altogether, the NHTSA has identified 18 required data elements plus standards for another 24 “if equipped” data elements. The tape loop is extended from eight seconds before the triggering incident to six seconds afterward (to record possible rollovers), and the devices must record up to three crash events.

This sounds like double-talk until you realize that an unknown percentage of crashes involve multiple events. A car sideswipes a guardrail, rams another vehicle and then veers off into a tree, or rolls over. The safety agency wants to capture all these events.

Some of the additional proposed data elements include lateral as well as longitudinal impact forces, steering input, operation of side airbags, ABS and stability controls, seat position, and even occupant sizes.

This is an enormous, complicated, and challenging proposal but ultimately it should have far-reaching results in crash investigations, advanced safety designs, and prompter medical attention for those injured in crashes.

Fortunately, the regulators have proposed what seems to be a reasonable time period for development — four years.

It will be interesting to see the responses filed to the NHTSA’s proposal.

From the NHTSA Web site,www.nhtsa.dot.gov:

NHTSA will accept comments on this notice of proposed rulemaking for the next 60 days. Written comments concerning it should be sent to the DOT Docket Facility, Attn: Docket No. NHTSA 2004-18029, Room PL-401, 400 Seventh St., S.W., Washington, D.C., 20590-0001, or faxed to (202) 493-2251. The notice also will be available for viewing on the NHTSA websitehttp://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/rulings/EDRNPRM4--June1/index.html or athttp://www.greencarreports.com. Comments may also be submitted electronically via this Web site.

From the owner’s manual of the 2004 Chevrolet Impala:


Your vehicle, like other modern motor vehicles, has a number of sophisticated computer systems that monitor and control several aspects of the vehicle’s performance. Your vehicle uses on-board vehicle computers to monitor emission control components to optimize fuel economy, to monitor conditions for air bag deployment and, if so equipped, to provide anti-lock braking and to help the driver control the vehicle in difficult driving situations. Some information may be stored during the regular operations to facilitate repair of detected malfunctions; other information is stored only in a crash or near crash event by computer systems commonly called event data recorders (EDR).

In a crash or near crash event, computer systems, such as the Air Bag Sensing and Diagnostic Module (SDM) in your vehicle may record information about the condition of the vehicle and how it was operated, such as engine speed, brake applications, throttle position, vehicle speed, safety belt usage, air bag readiness, air bag performance data, and the severity of a collision. This information has been used to improve vehicle crash performance of future vehicles and driving safety. Unlike the data recorders on many airplanes, these on-board systems do not record sounds, such as conversation of vehicle occupants.

To read this information, special equipment is needed and access to the vehicle or the SDM is required. GM will not access information about a crash event or share it with others other than

• with the consent of the vehicle owner or, if the vehicle is leased, with the consent of the lessee,

• in response to an official request of police or similar government office,

• as part of GM’s defense of litigation through the discovery process, or

• as required by law.

In addition, once GM collects or receives data, GM may

• use the data for GM research needs,

• make it available for research where appropriate confidentially is to be maintained and need is shown, or

• share summary data which is not tied to a specific vehicle with non-GM organizations for research purposes.

Others, such as law enforcement, may have access to the special equipment that can read the information if they have access to the vehicle or SDM.If your vehicle is equipped with OnStar™, please check the OnStar® subscription service agreement or manual for information on its operations and data collection.”

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