Who Owns Your Vehicle's Crash Data?

Bozi Tatarevic
by Bozi Tatarevic

Drivers blaming their cars for accidents or sudden acceleration is nothing new, but modern technology allows us to view data in cases where sudden breaking or a collision occurs. This information is recorded by a device known as an Event Data Recorder (EDR). These types of devices, commonly referred to as “black boxes,” are able to save multiple variables when a collision is detected.

EDRs are often used by police in crash investigations, but some have been used by manufacturers to prove that their vehicles aren’t faulty. One recent case involved a Tesla Model X, where the owner claimed the vehicle accelerated on its own and crashed into a building. Tesla refuted the claim based on the logs they pulled from the vehicle and stated that the driver was at fault.

Since Tesla is the only one with access to the logs, can owners defend themselves, and do they have a right to that data?

Event data recorders are defined as devices that are able to record a vehicle’s speed before and after a crash, based on federal regulation 49 CFR 563. These devices are not yet required to be installed in all vehicles, but, if a manufacturer chooses to record such data, they must abide by the regulation and record all of the variables that are described within. Due to a proposed law to make the devices mandatory, most manufacturers have chosen to install EDRs into their vehicles.

According to EDR expert Richard Ruth, about half of the current vehicles on the road have an EDR device that is accessible by the most popular tool on the market, the Bosch CDR system. He said that 88 percent of 2016 models are supported by the Bosch tool while another 11 percent are supported by another proprietary tool, meaning 99 percent of 2016 models having an EDR device that is readable by a commercial tool.

Hyundai and Kia use their own proprietary tool (known as the GIT tool), which is based on their OEM diagnostic system and is available commercially. Subaru uses a similar setup with tools from Denso and Hitachi. Jaguar Land Rover and Mitsubishi use tools from OTC and Bosch SPX. Jaguar Land Rover falls into a bit of grey area as its tool is commercially available, but the format it outputs has to be converted by their engineers in the United Kingdom. Although the data can be read independently, it still has to go through their hands in order to be in a presentable format. Ruth said they recently designated some engineers in the U.S. and will be expanding on this program. Jaguar Land Rover declined to comment on the story by the time of posting.

According to Ruth, Porsche vehicles do not currently employ EDR devices, so they are not required to abide by the regulation at this time. Tesla is the only outlier — it appears to be able to record crash data as described by the EDR rule but does not comply with it, since it does not offer a commercially available EDR tool. I asked Ruth how Tesla is able to comply with the rule if they do not offer the tool. He said they might be meeting the regulation by not employing an EDR, or that they think that they are not employing one but are actually in violation of the rule.

The rule defines an EDR as “a device or function in a vehicle that records the vehicle’s dynamic time-series data during the time period just prior to a crash event (e.g., vehicle speed vs. time) or during a crash event (e.g., delta-V vs. time), intended for retrieval after the crash event. For the purposes of this definition, the event data do not include audio and video data”.

The information released by Tesla after the recent crash, along with earlier ones, appears to meet this definition. We asked Tesla for clarification on their device and how it can be retrieved with a commercially available tool. They replied by stating that, “Tesla does not have an EDR device as defined by 49 CFR 563.”

I followed up and asked how they can make that statement when it is clear that they are reading crash data that coincides with the definition of an EDR device. They followed up with another statement: “We collect diagnostic data from Tesla vehicles in a responsible way that allows us to continue to improve the driver experience while also protecting our customers’ privacy.”

Since Tesla was not willing to share what data they were collecting and how they were collecting it, it is unclear at this time whether they are in violation of the EDR rule. The EDR rule received a recent follow-up that addresses ownership of data in the form of the Driver Privacy Act of 2015. The act states that “any data in an event data recorder required to be installed in a passenger motor vehicle (as provided for under Department of Transportation [DOT] regulations concerning the collection, storage, and retrievability of on-board motor vehicle crash event data) is the property of the owner or lessee of the vehicle in which the recorder is installed, regardless of when the vehicle was manufactured.”

The Act does not allow a manufacturer to retrieve the data without the owner’s consent, and even though Tesla does not admit to employing an EDR device, they have included language in their sales agreements that requires owners to grant them this right.

The Act protects owners from allowing others to read the data without their consent, but there are some other exclusions — court orders, federal investigations, emergency medical response, and anonymized traffic safety research. The data can be shielded by the law but can a vehicle owner retrieve it, and do they really want to? Ruth states that equipment and training for independent data retrieval involves an initial startup cost of $7,200 to $15,000, with yearly recurring costs between $1,880 and $5,000. These costs push the tools out of the price range of the average vehicle owner, but the forensic data experts that operate them do offer their services to independent parties. Ruth states that these readings range from $300 to $2,000 and typically come in at around $500 if there is minimal travel involved in reaching the download site.

Download requests are not yet common by vehicle owners but they are often requested by engineers hired by attorneys in civil suits. Ruth states that he has only completed one reading for an individual since during his 18 years in the field, and in that case it was for a driver charged with DUI. In that case, the individual stated that he was not in the driver’s seat at the time, but the downloaded data did not support this — the passenger occupant classification size did not match him.

Finding an impartial expert to download data is possible in vehicles covered by the commercially available systems, but would not have helped the Model X owner. Tesla does not consider their crash monitoring system to be an EDR device and, therefore, does not offer a commercially available tool for reading the data.

[Image Sources: Tesla Model X crash (Puzant/ imgur); Toyota SRS Module ( eBay)]

Bozi Tatarevic
Bozi Tatarevic

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  • Golden2husky Golden2husky on Jun 30, 2016

    The data should belong to the car owner, period. Even a court order should be forbidden. Unless this systematic step by step erosion of rights is questioned and ultimately stopped, we are doing ourselves a grave danger. I'm far more concerned about my car being at the body shop and Geico comes to do an estimate and downloads the data which ultimately will be used to jack my rates. This is something that should make it to the SCOTUS, though I'm not so sure that an individual's rights will trump those of the money people. So locate your black box, and rip it out in the event of an accident. Why, Mr. Insurance man, I have no idea where it is! I think the tow operators took it.

    • JPWhite JPWhite on Jun 30, 2016

      Black boxes are simply an initial step in capturing car data. As with Tesla cars, data will be transmitted to a central server. It won't be possible to take out the black box if the record is kept elsewhere and is constantly being updated. I understand your privacy concerns, but the genie is out of the bottle. We have no privacy anymore the battle has already been fought and lost.

  • Erikstrawn Erikstrawn on Jul 01, 2016

    Nothing new here. As a dealer technician in 1998, I was able to look at the data point from when an engine sensor failed and see the engine was at 7000rpm and the vehicle speed was 0mph when the rod went through the block. Some cases could be hit-or-miss depending on if a DTC was triggered during the event.

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