States Consider Privacy Rules for ‘Black Boxes’

An array of state legislatures are moving forward with measures this year to regulate automobile event data recorders — the so-called “black boxes” that monitor vehicle speed, seat belt use and other safety data, according to experts.

According to a report by Pam Greenberg, an analyst with the legislative information services bureau of the National Conference of State Legislatures, legislation related to use of the technology was introduced in 15 states this year, and bills were passed in Arkansas and North Dakota. California earlier passed the first legislation regulating black boxes.

The Arkansas bill is somewhat typical of the new measures, as it assigns intellectual property rights to the data in the black boxes to the vehicle owner and “prohibits the use of the data without written permission of the owner of the vehicle,” Greenberg noted.

But some bills, like that under consideration by legislators in Montana, H.B. 322, would go even further, and provide financial damages for those whose privacy was invaded by having the data from a black box used without their permission.

Gaining Popularity

Black boxes and other telematic devices are increasingly popular in the United States and overseas. The technologies emerged as part of the convergence, during the 1990s, of global positioning systems (GPS), mobile phones and the Internet.

Related technologies, like on-board navigation and directional equipment, have been revenue generators for U.S. automakers. General Motors claims to have 3 million subscribers for its “OnStar” telematics system, whose most popular feature appears to be the remote controlled door opener.

The black boxes, and other, more advanced telematics, may merge in the coming years, expert said, and become a technology called advanced automatic crash notification (AACAN). Sensors on the vehicle will be able to describe the severity of a particular accident, from fender bender to complete disaster.

Right now, most new cars come with the sophisticated black boxes, but only 12 models of GM cars come with the AACAN technology. “We will be expanding it to other models,” said Jim Schell, manager at OnStar Communications, the GM project.

Legislative rules are being crafted to include the emerging technology, as well as standard black boxes.

The legislation is partly for the education of the public — as many drivers of newer model cars are not even aware that their cars come with the recording and sensing devices. A bill in New Jersey requires that carmakers “make disclosures about recording devices” on their vehicles, said Greenberg. A proposed law in New York state would require car sellers to discuss the recording devices in the “owner’s manual” given to the buyer when he buys or leases a car.

Reduced Rates

Some legislators are also crafting bills that would compel insurance companies to give reduced rates for drivers who have cars which are outfitted with the technology, including reductions in premiums for bodily injury, property damage and collision coverage.

Government bodies are keen on the data recorders too, as they can be used to monitor risky behavior by employees, like cops or firefighters. In Hong Kong, the police force is purchasing US$37.5 million in black box and telemetry equipment for 500 police cars. “The value of telematics for police and first responders is tremendous,” said David Schrier, an analyst at ABI Research.

The data contained in the black boxes can help verify, or disprove, claims of negligence, experts said. Experts said that in the future, in-car cameras may also become standard safety features, but, of course, will raise a whole new raft of privacy concerns.

Increasingly, cars are electronic in content. Back in the 1970s, only 9 percent of a car’s content was electronic. Today, the total is closer to 40 percent.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicates that there are approximately 30 million cars on the road today with black boxes and related technology, and that 65 percent of new cars come equipped with black-box features.

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