What Is a Black Box?

We’ve been hearing a lot in the news lately about black boxes, otherwise known as event data recorders (EDRs). But what exactly do they do?

Like the black box on an airplane, an EDR helps police or investigators reconstruct what happened in an accident by recording key information such as vehicle speed, throttle position, airbag deployment and brake pressure.

According to information from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, all new cars now have some kind of EDR, but those devices are far from uniform. That’s why in 2006 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that all vehicles not only be equipped with EDRs by 2013, but that the information be standardized and accessible by investigators.

NHTSA estimates it will cost only 17 cents per car to do this.

The need for more standardized and accessible EDRs came to light in the Toyota recalls when Toyota said during congressional testimony that the company had only one laptop that could download EDR data from its vehicles in the entire U.S.

The coming regulations will require EDRs to record at least 15 specific data points, but more advanced systems will be able to log things such as steering input, sideways acceleration and functionality of electronic stability control and antilock braking systems. Also, information about how to download the data quickly and easily must be made available to authorities and be in the owner’s manual.

Some privacy advocates have raised concerns about how the data could be used and who has lawful access to it. For the record, the recorded information is the property of the car owner. The only way law enforcement can access it is with the owner’s consent or a court order if the owner refuses.

Interestingly, NHTSA says its field studies have found that EDRs actually make drivers safer when they take stock of the data. The agency says its commercial fleets have seen crash reductions of as much as 30% for EDR-equipped vehicles.

And for 17 cents, that’s not too bad a deal.

Black Box 101: The Basics of Event Data Recorders (Consumer Reports)