August 22, 2006

Carmakers must tell buyers about “black boxes”

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The government will not require
recorders in autos but said on Monday that car makers must tell
consumers when technology that tracks speed, braking and other
measurements is in the new vehicles they buy.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
regulation standardizes recorder content and sets guidelines
for how the information should be disclosed. It also requires
recorders to be more durable.

Privacy experts complained that consumer interests are not
fully protected and information captured by recorders can be

Safety experts, consumer groups and insurance companies
have long pressed the agency to mandate recorders in cars, but
industry has responded voluntarily in recent years. About
two-thirds of the new vehicles now produced each year contain
the device that is connected to air bag systems. General Motors
equips all its vehicles with recorders, a company spokesman

Regulators sought on Monday to set basic standards for
their use, saying that uniform safety data will help make
future auto safety regulation more precise.

Automakers have until September 1, 2010, to comply with the
notification and other requirements in the new regulation, if
they choose to equip their vehicles with recorders.

The rules governing auto recorders, which are similar to
the "black boxes" that store information about mechanical
flight systems on commercial airliners, are intended to give
law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, auto companies
and safety regulators a minimum set of mechanical measurements
in the seconds leading up to and during a crash.

Under the new rules, auto recorders must track vehicle
speed, acceleration, and deceleration, braking, steering and
some air bag functions. In some cases data on vehicle roll
angle, steering inputs, and passenger safety belt use will be

Privacy experts criticized the decision to use the owners'
manual to notify consumers that the vehicle contains a
recorder, arguing that many people do not look at it. They also
raised concerns that data could be misused for legal or
insurance purposes.

"They basically punted on the privacy issues," Jay Stanley,
a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union, said
of the NHTSA regulation. "This is a technology that is powerful
and rapidly advancing and we need to bring our laws up to

Rae Tyson, a NHTSA spokesman, said the owner's manual is
suitable for notifying consumers and stressed that recorder
information is private property that cannot be downloaded
without permission of the vehicle owner.

Tyson said most privacy concerns should be addressed by the
courts and Congress, not by NHTSA.