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CNET On Cars: Black box: The snitch inside your car

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CNET On Cars: Black box: The snitch inside your car

3:04 /

For years, some automakers have installed a black box in your car, recording the data and analyzing your driving habits. But soon the federal government will require all vehicles to have them. Will such a device help or hurt you? CNET's Brian Cooley explains.

-Now, the first disappointment is this silver box is a black box. There really aren't any black boxes. It's kind of like in airliners. And what this really is, is the airbag controller from a 2003 Camry. You see, airbags can only work if they know what's been happening to the vehicle so they can predict if they need to blow the bags in the next few milliseconds. This becomes a data recorder for that purpose and a data processor, hence, its existence. Now, here is the business end of it. Do you see all of those connectors in there? A couple dozen, maybe three-dozen metal connectors. This is where the sensors are wired in from all over the car that this thing is monitoring and recording. And those sensors can include a lot of different things including G forces interacting on the car; the accelerator and brake pedal position; steering wheel angle, what way were you pointed; wheel rotation and vehicle speed, kind of the same thing but not always depending on the traction situation; and whether the seat belts were buckled and even if you had someone in the passenger's seat. There's a lot of information coming in here. Now, what's not coming in, as far as I know, none of these devices yet record GPS coordinates or cellphone status, were you on the phone texting, what have you, but probably it's a matter of time. Oh, by the way, in addition to these sensors and many more, Mercedes cars even capture the position of the sunroof. Because of an imminent rollover, they close the windows and the sunroof. Thanks to the computations of their black box. Now, what's inside the black box? It's basically one circuit board that has got several processors, but what's key about all these processors is they also have storage attached to them and that's where this thing can record some degree of look back of all those sensors we talked about. It could be a few seconds up to as much as 30 seconds, I understand. Now, about 96% of all new cars sold in the U.S. have a black box right now, but the U.S. government is on the verge of requiring every car have one going forward which brings up four interesting questions. First of all, what data points will be required? They wanna conform that to every carmakers gathering the same stuff. How long of a snapshot is going to be held of those data points? What kind of technology, software or hardware, is needed to read what's in here? There's no USB port, believe me. And most importantly, who has the right to that data and when and under what conditions? Now, at the state level in the U.S., about 13 states have laws that specifically govern who can get the information off these memory chips on a black box in your car after an accident. It's a very contentious issue. Another 12 states or so aren't considering laws. The rest are, if you will, a black box. The ownership of this thing is interesting. It's in your car, so it belongs to you, but the rules of investigation under criminal code will often trump that. And then, what if your car is totalled? It just got blocked from you by your insurance company. Now, it's their black box.

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