Black boxes for cars
The recent Russian meteor crash was literally an earth-shattering
event that injured around 1,200 people. While details of the spectacular
event are still coming to light, we have witnessed another phenomenon:
videos of the meteor shower have gone ‘viral’ on the YouTube and other
sites on the Internet.
Now, it is hard think that the good citizens of Russia are always
shooting the sky armed with video cameras and mobile phones, even at odd
hours. How did so many manage to be at the right spot at the right time,
videoing this event for posterity?
There were many people out and about on that fateful day, but they
were all in cars. And they didn’t even have to do anything to record the
show. Most cars in Russia, where motor accidents are very common, are
equipped with dashboard and bonnet mounted cameras that automatically
track every move of the car and in the event of an accident, play back
the last 30 seconds or so before impact.
This has become the only way for drivers to prove their innocence to
insurers and traffic police in that country and to settle fights among
motorists. Thus when meteor particles rained down, the car cameras
dutifully captured every scene. It was an unexpected bonus.
This ‘Camera on board’ phenomenon is spreading to other countries and
indeed, one can purchase such a unit in Sri Lanka as well. The jury is
still out on whether such recordings are admissible in a court of law as
evidence, since it is all too easy to digitally manipulate a video
recording. But there is no doubt that it can be considered as a safety
feature if properly used - for example, if there is provision for the
motorist to analyse his or her driving patterns by examining the videos.
Most planes are also equipped with nose cameras, which beam a ‘live’
image to monitors on seat-backs for passengers to enjoy a view of
take-off and landing. That is a relatively new phenomenon. But all
planes are required to have what is known in common parlance as the
Black Box (which is really orange in colour).
The actual name for this device is Flight Data Recorder (FDR) which
records flight data and cockpit-to-ground and internal cockpit
communications throughout the flight. If the plane crashes or if any
other mishap occurs (emergency landing, engine failure and fire), the
FDR (which is fire/impact/water resistant) can be analysed to get a clue
about what went wrong. The National Geographic Channel ran an excellent
series called Air Crash Investigations which showed how the FDR is
analysed in this manner.
Attention has been drawn towards installing such devices in cars and
other vehicles to improve safety. Several manufacturers are scrambling
to put what they call “Event Data Recorders” (EDR) in cars from this
year, though some car makers have taken an early lead with such cars
already present on the road. (You still have to wait a few years to get
a flying car with a Flight Data Recorder - they are coming soon to an
airfield near you).
In a pioneering move, the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration (NHTSA) of the USA has proposed that all car makers
include “black box” EDRs in all new car models to better understand what
goes wrong when cars collide. In addition to helping policy-makers spot
dangerous car accident trends, black boxes could serve a more practical
purpose for law enforcement agencies. They could provide an objective
and clear source of information, showing exactly what happened slightly
before and after a car crash.
Police, insurers and courts sometimes struggle to determine what
happened and who is responsible - “black box” data recorders could
literally provide a better picture. The devices record vehicle speed,
any use of the accelerator or brakes, air-bag deployment, seatbelt use
and the forces at the moment of impact.
The NHTSA's proposal would make black boxes mandatory in all vehicles
released as part of the 2014 model line. As many as 96 percent of cars
and light-duty trucks produced in the 2013 model series can house EDRs
and at least 91 percent of vehicles for that year already have the
devices, according to the NHTSA.Meanwhile, Citroen has become the first
car maker to fit a black box as standard into one of its cars, the
Citroen C1 Connexion now on sale in the UK.
This move is certain to kick start a trend in the motoring world.
However, Citroen’s plan to analyse driving behaviour through the black
box and adjust insurance premiums accordingly has already raised a
hornet’s nest. Some have also questioned whether the black box is
‘intelligent’ enough to account for changes in weather, road surfaces
and traffic conditions.
Moreover, some GPS-equipped black box systems send information to
your insurer about your driving habits; typically how much, where and
when you drive. But does your insurer deserve to know where you are
going and when? Isn’t that an invasion of your privacy?
Indeed, there is some fear of an ‘Orwellian Big Brother’ approach to
the monitoring of driving patterns.
The authorities will have to tread carefully between safety and
privacy aspects in this regard. As cars get more connected to the
outside world through black boxes, cameras, telematics, GPS and
Internet, someone, somewhere will be able to keep track of your every
move. That is somewhat creepy, I admit.
In the end, safety does matter. The latest cars are equipped with a
plethora of passive and active safety measures from air-bags to lane
departure warning signals which can save your life. There are also
automatic crash notification systems that inform all the relevant
agencies seconds after a crash without the driver (who may be seriously
injured) having to do anything.
In the near future, there could be cars that can drive themselves.
Google is spearheading such a project in several countries. Premium car
manufacturer BMW last week unveiled plans for a self-driving car capable
of negotiating highways, intersections, toll stations and roadworks
The German manufacturer has signed a partnership agreement with tyre
supplier Continental to jointly develop an ‘'electronic co-pilot
system''. The new technology is a radical extension of BMW's basic
driver assist programs such as Traffic Jam Assistant, an auto steering
and braking system that is due to be implemented in its new cars
BMW says the vision for the new technology is making accident-free
mobility a reality.
That is the ideal goal of car manufacturers, law enforcement
authorities, drivers and of course, the insurers. Even if privacy is
compromised a bit in ensuring the greatest good of the greatest number,
no one will have a reason to grudge.