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Sunday, 3 March 2013

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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.

Phenomenon

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.

Struggle

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 autonomously.

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 shortly.

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.

 

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