Maybe you were never told. Maybe you just forgot. But you probably don’t think about your car “spying” on you.
According to the New York Times, there is a growing controversy over the fact that 96 percent of new vehicles sold in America (and 150 million older vehicles) contain an event data recorder, commonly referred to as a “black box.”
If the National Highway Safety Administration has its way, starting in September 2014, 100 percent of new vehicles will be equipped with the devices, which activate in the few seconds surrounding a crash or air bag deployment and collect a wealth of data about speed, brake position, seat belt use, whether you were mangling the words to “Blinded By The Light” and “Purple Rain,” etc.
The black boxes are invaluable for helping automakers make safety improvements and fine tune their advertising (“A real turn-on for chicks who dig spontaneous combustion”) and for settling court cases in which there is no eyewitness, but privacy advocates are squeamish about the possibility of abuse by law enforcement agencies, insurers and other third parties.
It does seem that if the manufacturers and feds were proud of the devices, they would brag about them upfront, instead of burying news of their existence in a few obscure paragraphs of your owner’s manual, along with other stuff you never read, such as “Yes, it’s a state-of-the-art sound system, but the people in the retirement home five blocks over probably don’t share your musical tastes, jackass.”
Probably most of us at some time have momentarily exceeded the speed limit by five miles per hour while daydreaming, so it’s creepy to think about the temptation for regulators to collect more data for longer periods of time. Of course some drivers overreact. (“I’m afraid the insurance company will twist the data to imply that I ALWAYS drive with my feet and moon busloads of nuns while approaching a one-lane bridge ...”)
Conspiracy theorists really come all unglued about the possibilities. Their fears are probably groundless. On the other hand, if the commercials are all shot on a soundstage somewhere in the desert, the windshield wiper fluid is pure fluoride and the vehicle veers toward grassy knolls, all bets are off.
Many of us have a different idea for using black boxes. Given that we’ve had more than a century to perfect mass production of automobiles, and given that we still get recall notices such as “By golly, somehow or another our Quality Control department overlooked 400,000 units that just might eject the driver’s seat when you empty the ashtray ...,” maybe we should put the black boxes on the AUTO COMPANY EXECUTIVES to determine what it is they’re doing wrong.
Let us not underestimate the ability of software glitches to invalidate the results of the recorders. Black box advocates are quick to cheer the graduation from an era of “he said, she said” controversies to an era of “he said, she said or the piece of electronic junk that someone programmed on a Friday afternoon while watching the clock for the start of a wild weekend said.”
Overall the recorders are a blessing and are here to stay, but no wonder some people would like to apply the brakes to the whole matter.
Danny welcomes reader e-mail responses at firstname.lastname@example.org and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades”.