The event data recorder: Saving lives and invading privacy

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Close-up of an event data recorder, held by a man. A smashed black sports car is out of focus in the background.

An event data recorder. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/AXAWinterthur/Wikipedia)

Since an on-board event data recorder (EDR) was first used by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration in 1991 to determine the details surrounding an automotive crash, the automotive industry knew it was the wave of the future. Today, an automotive computer captures a great deal of data regarding your driving habits within its crash recorder, and can even save your life by notifying authorities in the event of a crash, through a service like OnStar. But for some, the EDR represents an unnerving invasion of privacy – and they’ll be standard in all vehicles by 2013, says the NHTSA.

How an event data recorder works

While various parts of an automobile’s computer system monitor all vehicle functions, the EDR is part of the airbag-deployment controller. As such, it’s a safety mechanism that monitors the entire network within a vehicle for signs of a collision. The type of data collected within an EDR box varies by manufacturer, but in general, throttle, brake pedal position, steering angle, yaw rate (rotational velocity), speed and impact sensor data is recorded. After airbags are deployed, this data is saved permanently and can only be accessed through the vehicle’s OBD-II port.

The lawyers get involved

According to Popular Mechanics, lawyers use event data recorder crash data in court cases to demonstrate driver behavior during an accident. During the Toyota unintended acceleration recall debacle, an attorney for the automaker used EDR data to show that it was driver error that caused one high-profile crash, rather than mechanical error.

OnStar changes the game

Adding GPS data relays to the standard EDR capture has also proven to be controversial. Systems like OnStar establish two-way links between service providers and the vehicle. These external parties can know not only where the car is located but other operational data available within the crash data box.

Today, such relays aren’t supposed to work without driver permission. However, OnStar was once caught snooping without permission, according to Popular Mechanics. In September 2011, OnStar changed its user contract terminology without notifying customers, in order to track customer driving habits and sell the information to third parties. Consumer groups and Congress got involved, and the policy was reversed.

[Reverse your lack of a vehicle problem at Mazda Valparaiso]

Now, auto insurance companies like Progressive and State Farm are reportedly testing their own tracking systems, in order to better monitor policyholders. While this can result in some customers receiving lower insurance premiums, there is just as much if not more potential for insurers to use this data to charge customers more, experts argue.

No opt-out for new car buyers

As the NHTSA is requiring that all new cars have EDRs starting in 2013. Those who subscribe to services like OnStar will be able to opt out of sharing data with third party marketers, but the way to do this is not on page one of the owner’s manual. Until laws enter the books that address the potential violation of privacy an EDR presents, drivers will have to endure. At the very least, a driver cannot be compelled to surrender a vehicle’s EDR data to police without probable cause, a warrant or a subpoena, writes Popular Mechanics.

The role EDRs played in 2010 Toyota recall


Event data recorder Wiki

Popular Mechanics

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