"Black box" recordings tell tales in auto crashes

An electronic data recorder stores a car's activity in case of a crash.
Published: .
Updated: .

In a plane crash the black box helps solve puzzles, but what about in your car?

"They're not black," said an automotive engineer.

"They can learn how fast the car was going, they can learn whether the brakes are on or whether the ABS unit was on," said Dr. Mark French with the Purdue College of Technology.

All that information can be gathered from the event data recorder (EDR), which is already in most new cars. Starting in Fall 2014, the government wants the EDR in all new vehicles.

"The more information you have about an accident, the more likely you are to be able to design against problems in the future," French said.

The former flight and auto engineer says EDRs only store that data from a few seconds before a crash until one second after.

"All you do is grab a little handheld box and go up and plug it in," French said.

Just that quickly, investigators download your data.

"You have to depend on them using that information correctly," said Dr. Eugene Spafford, a cyber-security expert at Purdue.

Spafford says the law lags behind on technology, leaving big questions.

"About how much of this information would have to be covered by a warrant if it was to be collected by law enforcement and if you're in a private situation, when your insurance company requires you to surrender it to them to process a claim," he said. "You may have no ability to shield any of the information."

Only 13 states have laws on black box court orders or whether insurance companies can deny claims if you don't give up data. Indiana is not one of them.

And if EDRs one day include GPS, privacy could be tougher to protect.