Black Box Job: Your Car As A Hostile Witness

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

More and more drivers are ratted out to police and insurance adjusters – by their own cars. “Event data recorders that function much like the “black boxes” on airplanes, and which are now installed on virtually all new vehicles, can give investigators incriminating details about your driving behavior in the final seconds before a crash,” writes The Tennessean. The paper quotes Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association:

“It’s in the cars, it can’t be turned off, and the information is available to anyone with a court order. Our members ask whether these devices can be disabled, but they can’t, because they are integral to the computer systems that control modern cars.”

A Nashville company, VCE Inc., is in the business of making the boxes talk. Says VCE Vice President Todd Hutchison:

“We have been involved from the start and were among the first ones to begin downloading the data from these recorders for the accident reconstructions we do for attorneys and insurance companies. We typically get permission from the owner of the vehicle, but that’s not necessarily who owned it at the time of the accident. If the insurance company has bought the salvaged vehicle, they can give us permission.”

On some cars, connecting a cable is no longer necessary. Beginning with the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, GM will be able to access the information from the recorders wirelessly through the OnStar system included on most of the automaker’s vehicles, The Tennessean writes.

Biller has heard of remote readers that could access the data just by coming close to a vehicle.

It doesn’t need an accident to make the data change your life. Buddy Oakes, a Columbia-based insurance claims adjuster says that some insurance companies are using the data to help rate customers’ driving habits to determine how much their premiums should be.

General Motors safety spokeswoman Sharon Basel says:

“We have them in all of our vehicles, and have had since the mid-’90s. It’s not a continuous recording; it’s only during an event. And we can’t access the data without the consent of the vehicle owner or lessee.”

Help is near – from the government: Beginning with the 2011 model year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires that automakers tell in the vehicle owner’s manual whether a recorder is installed and where it is located.

Bertel Schmitt
Bertel Schmitt

Bertel Schmitt comes back to journalism after taking a 35 year break in advertising and marketing. He ran and owned advertising agencies in Duesseldorf, Germany, and New York City. Volkswagen A.G. was Bertel's most important corporate account. Schmitt's advertising and marketing career touched many corners of the industry with a special focus on automotive products and services. Since 2004, he lives in Japan and China with his wife <a href=""> Tomoko </a>. Bertel Schmitt is a founding board member of the <a href=""> Offshore Super Series </a>, an American offshore powerboat racing organization. He is co-owner of the racing team Typhoon.

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  • Golden2husky Golden2husky on Oct 18, 2011

    I am amazed ar=t how many here are actually OK with their car ratting them out. Taxes, no. Red light cameras, no. But this $hit is ok? Incredible...

  • Scottymac03 Scottymac03 on Oct 28, 2012

    A lot of what I'm going to say seems to be a lot of what you guys won't touch on. And that's goofing around in a car. A lot of you guys are making good points both for and against the black boxes. I think the GPS thing is a good idea, the disabling I'm 50/50 on. Not that I'll ever run from cops (seeing as how I am one) but I get it. For me, I'm concerned about my premium going up because I brake too hard, speed up while passing a slow motorist, going out to track day or doing burnouts. In my opinion my insurance rate shouldn't be rated on my driving but on how many accidents I've had. None to date. I bought a 2012 Camaro SS this year and like every red blooded American male that buys that kind of car I like to go out and goof around at the local SCCA/AMA track and race it and every now and then do a burnout or two. (With the price of tires and fuel though that's a LOT less these days.) I shouldn't have to worry about my going to the track or my doing burnouts in my our car costing me anything more than a set of tires. I shouldn't have to worry about a warranty being cancelled, tickets being mailed to me or insurance rates going up. And yes all three DO happen and it is starting to occur with more frequency. And being a cop I know that insurance companies rely on a police report as much as they're own adjusters and what not. I know that a dealer's warranty adjuster knows the difference between a piston ring gone bad and a blown motor from being dumb. As for tickets (my being a cop I get it) if I get pulled over for doing 80 in a 65, I'm hit. That sucks and I do pay the fine and go to traffic school. (I have seven tickets on my record to prove it.) However, if I'm out on a country road and there's no one around for miles and I want to run up to 100 or even 120 mph I shouldn't have to worry about getting a ticket in the mail. As for car accidents and accepting responsibility that's something else entirely. If I was ever in a accident and was at fault I would accept responsibility for it. Period. But that's not what people are really concerned about. People are worried about their privacy and about money. Neither governments nor companies have the right to try and force all kinds of fines (or taxes as I call them) on us under the guise of safety. I'm all for safe driving, controlling your self on the road and all of that. Obviously. But the idea that I might get "charged" money one way or another because I choose to do a few burnouts or take my car to the track is complete garbage. I paid for the car, I paid for the warranty and I paid for the insurance. It's my car, my choice. And if I need the warranty or insurance and they say no because I take my car out for track day every once in a while...........HULK SMASH! (Sadly in this day though Hulk has to smash through lawyers and what not.) Bottom line is I shouldn't be penalized for goofing around a car designed and built for goofing around in. If any of these companies or government branches were really that concerned with our safety we'd all be driving little while cars that top out at 55mph.

  • ShitHead It kicked on one time for me when a car abruptly turned into my lane. Worked as advertised. I was already about to lean into the brake as I was into the horn.
  • Theflyersfan I look at that front and I have to believe that BMW and Genesis designers look at that and go "wow...that's a little much." Rest of the car looks really good - they nailed the evolution of the previous design quite well. They didn't have to reinvent the wheel - when people want a Mustang, I don't think they are going to cross-shop because they know what they want.
  • Theflyersfan Winters go on around Halloween and Summers go on in late March or early April. However, there were some very cold mornings right after the summers went on that had me skidding a bit due to no grip! I do enough (ahem) spirited driving on empty hilly/mountain roads to justify a set of sticky rubber, and winters are a must as while there isn't much snow where I am (three dustings of snow this entire winter), I head to areas that get a bit more snow and winter tires turns that light, RWD car into a snow beast!
  • SCE to AUX My B5.5 was terrible, but maybe the bugs have been worked out of this one.
  • Zerofoo 5-valve 1.8T - and OK engine if you aren't in a hurry. These turbocharged engines had lots of lag - and the automatic transmission didn't help.Count on putting a timing belt on this immediately. The timing belt service interval, officially, was 100,000 miles and many didn't make it to that.