Line Car

On April 12, 2007, New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine was seriously injured in a crash on the Garden State Parkway. In the days following, witnesses, including a state patrol officer assigned to ride with the governor, gave varying accounts, most estimating the governor’s SUV traveling at a speed of more than 70mph. Now it seems that the vehicle had been traveling at 91mph in the final seconds before the crash, and, moreover, the governor, seated in the front passenger seat, was not wearing his seatbelt. How do we know this? Because the Chevy Suburban used in his motorcade contained a black box. A lucky fluke? Turns out most domestic cars sold within the last few years all contain them as well. Who knew?

Since 2000, most domestic automobile manufacturers, namely General Motors (GM) and Ford, have been quietly installing what are technically called Motor Vehicle Event Data Recorders (MVEDR). These are devices based on IEEE standards formally adopted in 2002. Since the 1970s, GM has been installing something it called Sensing and Diagnostic modules (SDM) in car models fitted with airbags. SDMs, which captured and recorded data only after a crash, were originally designed to help GM improve the performance of the airbags and its crash defense mechanisms. MVEDR data, in at least one case, prompted GM to make at least one vehicle safety recall.

Beginning in 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will require standards for MVEDR data collection, including some 42 points of common data deemed beneficial to crash investigators. Turns out that, with antilock braking systems (ABS) on most cars these days, skid marks left at the scene of an accident are no longer accurate in predicting how fast a vehicle was traveling, if skid marks are even present. The use of traction control and stability systems mean most cars don’t even leave skid marks these days.

The data specified by the NHSTA include vehicle speed, engine RPM, service brake on/off, lateral acceleration, vehicle roll angle, antilock braking system status, seatbelt status (driver and passenger), steering wheel angle, and a variety of specific airbag-related details. And beginning in 2008 the NHTSA requires a standard statement to be included in the owner manual for each vehicle containing an EDR. But there is no requirement that a vehicle must include an EDR, nor is there a prohibition on what the manufacturer collects beyond the NHSTA standards, or how it is used.

  1. gilbert king says:

    This is why I do not buy ford or gm products any more. They spy on you and shove technology down my throat that I do not want ie onstar. I am a toyota buyer. They do not have onstar or the black boxes. They also are not subject to the ludicrous union demands that GM and ford signed on. toyota makes better cars too.

  2. Bryan K says:

    They need more safety measures like this to save people from themselves.

    Apparently we as a nation have thrown out personal responsibility so we need someone else to hold our hands ALL the time. What a joke this nation is…. –> Your Home for PSU sports and much much more

  3. davydany says:

    i don’t think this is limited to only Ford and GM. i believe most other manufacturers are also doing it.

  4. noname says:

    #2 Bryan K, Yea I wish CEOs, GW and the like would practice a little less personal responsibility (less looking out for Numero Uno) and give more due attention to their fiduciary obligations.

    This neo-con clarion call for personal responsibility while allowing corporate welfare and corrupt governance is simply very hypocritical.

    Just put it all on the peoples back! What B.S.

  5. bill says:

    I’m sure my Mercedes is reporting on me! The lady in the navigator get’s pretty onry if I don’t follow her instructions to the letter!!! I can’t imagine what it says when I smash down the highway smoking a joint at twice the legal limit without my seat belt on!!!
    The next thing I’ll probably have to do is pee in a cup… while I’m driving!!!

  6. gregallan says:

    If you don’t want the tracking service, can you yank the power plug on it? Does anyone know?

  7. DoNotBendOver says:

    The first poster, Gilbert King, is wrong about Toyotas…they, too, are infected with these black boxes. Look at the owner’s manuals for their 2007 models (I confirmed this with the manual for their largest SUV, the 2007 Sequoia).

    We need our BEST HACKERS and AUTO BUFFS to work on instructions on how to RIP OUT these BIG-BROTHER BLACK BOXES. The locations of the boxes vary, and the best solution would be one where the vehicle would still pass inspection (you don’t want the engine light to flash just because Big Brother isn’t on board). It would also be fine if you could just reconnect the black box for the inspection and then RIP IT OUT afterward.


    Here’s a PARTIAL list of companies that have SOLD OUT YOUR PRIVACY (Vetronix is one of the sell-out companies):

    Here’s the Firefox-unfriendly page (topic is “CDR”):

  8. bobo says:

    I worked for several tier one suppliers and I think I can clear up a few points. The data mentioned always gets stored by the safety critical units when an event happens. Its not one box which is intended to store this data. Also the intent is not so much to spy as CYA for the auto companies when people try to sue claiming their brakes failed.
    Sorry to say guys but no amount of hacking will cut it for this one unless you plan on disabling both your air bags and ABS which would probably look worse than not wearing your seat belt.
    While on-star does take it a step further the data is still in several spots in the car. Your best bet would to have a diagnostics tool to try to clear the EEPROM of all the modules.

    And your out of your mind if you think Toyota is not doing this, they are one of the leaders of the pack. Aside from some Chinese OEM, Chrysler’s might have the least of this.

  9. Olo Baggins of Bywater says:

    If you are in a wreck that is your fault, you may want to pull this box and throw it in a lake.

    Absolutely, because I, personally as a decent and safe driver with nearly 30 years driving experience and NO accidents or tickets, have not paid nearly enough insurance premiums to cover other idiot drivers already.

    You guys advocating ripping those things out to prevent getting caught are nothinng but LIARS. Please justify (if not here, then to yourself) why your insurance company should pay you tens of thousands in settlement money when the accident was your own stupid fault?

    You guys are just the same as welfare cheaters. Think about it.

  10. GeekPirateRoberts says:

    Olo Baggins: I was going to say the same thing myself. I can’t believe people can rationalize ripping out the boxes, when the only reasoning behind doing so is to hide the evidence of their own wrongdoing.

    #4 (noname): This is what the problem is. I don’t care what you think of politicians and corporate execs, this is simply wrong. Just because others may or may not be shirking their responsibilities, don’t use that as an excuse to shirk yours. If you’ve been the victim in an accident, and the only evidence that could get the responsible party to pay out potentially $100k + in extensive medical bills you’d be facing, just hope the other driver didn’t follow the suggestions above to disable the unit. Conversely, if it wasn’t your fault and you’re being blamed for it, you should hope you didn’t disable it.

  11. orangefly says:

    I can’t believe people can rationalize ripping out the boxes, when the only reasoning behind doing so is to hide the evidence of their own wrongdoing.

    i can’t believe you can rationalize recording my every move in a car….a little nazi for me….

  12. Ducky says:

    Like the article says — the black boxes are essentially a replacement for skid marks on the road, and a bit more accurate to boot. It’s really not much of an ‘invasion of privacy,’ since it won’t be reporting on your every move at all times. Plus, this is about the only way car manufacturers in the U.S. currently have to collect real-life car crash data without hiring stunt drivers to crash cars. You *do* want safer cars, don’t you?

  13. mark says:

    All I want is to quit being monitored. A sophisticated baby monitor for an adult. I curse every time Ii get in my van and the seat belt nag will go off for 10 minutes. I will pay any mechanic that can show me how to disable that piece of shit technology.

  14. DoNotBendOver says:

    “Baloney!” I say to those who think that these black boxes are more accurate. Check out this CNET article:

    But there have been incorrect uses as well. In a case involving Maine Governor John Baldacci, the state trooper reported driving at 55mph. The investigators, using traditional forensics, determined that the vehicle was traveling between 55 and 65mph. But the MVEDR data downloaded from the manufacture recorded a speed of 71mph and was dismissed by all parties as inaccurate.

    That’s a high-profile case. Just imagine John Doe having been subject to crap data and not having the resources to fight it.

    Let the self-righteous “have never sped” liars go to confession. Most people don’t blink at drivers going up to 65 MPH on a 55 MPH highway. The reason is that people who speak honestly know that “55” was shoved down States’ throats as a prerequisite for Federal highway funds, not as a necessary speed for safe highway driving.

    For the rest: Consider the teenager who runs a red light and hits you, totaling your vehicle. Even though the insurance company accepts that he caused the accident, it uses the black-box, Big-Brother data to claim that you were two miles over the speed limit and thereby REDUCES its payment to you. Then, you get a speeding ticket, too, for two miles over. (The self-righteous need not comment. I doubt any of you are old ladies going 40 MPH in a 55 MPH lane, and they should be off the road, anyway.)

    The ultimate question is: How much privacy are you willing to give up? Morons who accepts black boxes are the same ones who’d enjoy living under Britain’s ubiquitous CCTV system, where everyone’s on camera 24/7.

    That’s not how I want to live, and I’ll fight against it.

  15. DoNotBendOver says:

    The URL for the CNET article was gobbled up. Here it is:

    Regarding a previous commenter’s note about losing airbags to the disabled black box: There is obviously no technical reason the airbags cannot be independent, but I accept that current designs may have them and the recording function intertwined.

    Frankly, to protect my privacy and avoid the type of lawsuit that would have resulted from false data such as those in the Governor of Maine’s incident (see above URL), I’d be happy to lose the airbags. Most of the seatbelt-equipped cars I’ve driven lacked them, anyway.

    There must be a way to pull the EEPROM from the black box and fool the box into thinking that the recording EEPROM is still there.

  16. Olo Baggins of Bywater says:

    15…so, based on “all parties agreeing” in this one case all the black boxes are innaccurate? No doubt there is far more to this story.

    As with any “new method,” the traditional crash investigator may reluctantly need to recalibrate his standard equations. While it’s entirely likely that some bad data may get recorded, at some point these boxes ARE completely accurate and far better than estimating skid marks and damage levels. Besides…with ABS there aren’t many skid marks, eh?

    Fight it all you want, but when you’re driving on a public road I don’t see how your driving habits should be private if they result in vehicular homicide or simply the creation of a new Special Olympics athelete.

  17. OhForTheLoveOf says:

    #4 – This neo-con clarion call for personal responsibility while allowing corporate welfare and corrupt governance is simply very hypocritical.

    Just put it all on the peoples back! What B.S.

    Comment by noname — 5/9/2007 @ 7:48 pm

    Not sure what this has to do with black boxes… But, in general, thank you for saying it. “Personal Responsibility” in the conservative lexicon is just code for, “I got mine, go screw yourself”

    However, as for the black boxes we were talking about…

    Are they simply talking about having the last state of the car recorded at the time of a crash? Then I like it. It helps me.

    Are we talking about actually tracking me? Where I go… When I go… How fast I drove on March 12th… Then get it out. I do not need Big Brother looking over my shoulder.

    If I read this right, we are talking about the former. (Of course you know some jack ass is trying to sell the latter to car makers ever as we write.)

  18. Olo Baggins of Bywater says:

    18…as a parent of a 17 year old driver, I want the latter, too. 🙂 Big Brother my ass…I need to be Big Daddy in that case. FWIW, these tools are already available and plug into the ODB port. Sorry I don’t have a link.

  19. catbeller says:

    news for you all: the black boxes are being installed at the insistence of the auto insurance industry. the car companies are simply bowing to money and power here.

    if we do manage to rip out or bamboozle the God Box in our cars, we will find that such tampering will invalidate our policies. Or, if they haven’t realized yet that we can shut down their monitoring devices, they will quickly rewrite the policies to indicate cancellation at any sign of hackery. the next step after that, of course, is to make removal, hacking, or shutdown of the boxes illegal. that will be no problem, as the industry will simply drop a dime on their employees, our representatives.

    the gps trackers for our cars, soon to come to a car near you, will follow the same pattern: first a boon, then a requirement, then a felony if hacked or shut down against the wishes of those tracking us. ditto the gps trackers in our cell phones.

  20. catbeller says:

    oh, yeah — since we are required by law to have auto insurance, we are by logic required to be watched by black boxes. police states are so much fun. welcome to hell, kids. where is cheney living, again? apparently some people don’t get black boxes, figuratively or literally. in a police state, the only people who are free are the police. no doubt this is all worth it to keep us safe, or make auto insurance more and more profitable for the companies every year by finding new ways to avoid payment. i get confused sometimes, as to exactly why we are required to live in a police state now.

  21. mark says:

    “If I read this right, we are talking about the former. (Of course you know some jack ass is trying to sell the latter to car makers ever as we write.) ”

    And therein lies the problem. If it were to stop there, fine, but you know it wont. Each bit of freedom we give up for safety just makes it easier for the next guy to sell his tracking crap.

  22. Angel H. Wong says:


    BUT… The day the goverment makes it illegal to even touch it, it’s the day you should stop trusting that black box.

  23. hhopper says:

    If you have a transmitting GPS device on your car, it would be a simple matter to determine if you had been speeding in a particular area without anyone even seeing you. That sort of sucks.

  24. OhForTheLoveOf says:

    #18 – 18…as a parent of a 17 year old driver, I want the latter, too. 🙂 Big Brother my ass…I need to be Big Daddy in that case. FWIW, these tools are already available and plug into the ODB port. Sorry I don’t have a link.

    Comment by Olo Baggins of Bywater — 5/10/2007 @ 7:29 am

    I have no problem with YOU tracking YOUR daughter and YOUR car. In fact, I’d buy a share of that company. But I have a real problem with anonymous snoops traking me for no compelling reason at all… save the bullshit reason of national security.

    As for you guys who are saying, “Well it’s here, get used to it.” Again, the self fulfilling prophesy. You refuse to stand up as an organized group and exersize your right to participate in your country’s government… the one of the people, for the people, and by the people… so you get what you deserve… Corporate interests, “security” interests, and other big money interests get what they want because you give it to them.

    Decisions are made by those who show up.

    If you truly think there is nothing you can do, then it WILL be true.

  25. TheGlobalWarmer says:

    These things are a GOOD thing. They form the infrastructure necessary to support my fantasy law: Make it a felony to drive under 350 miles/week and give tax breaks to those who drive 500 miles or more per week so they can afford more gas. You need some way to monitor compliance.

  26. Guyver says:

    1. Toyota’s days may be numbered. I have a friend who works for a company that makes parts for the automobile companies, and I recall him telling me he ran across some vague verbage that would lead him to believe Toyota is planning it as well.

    19 & 22. Wouldn’t the DMCA already cover the black boxes? Afterall, companies like HP and Lexmark are using it against companies who make clones of their ink jet and toner cartridges.

    24. Sad but true. I can see the insurance companies drooling over the untapped money they could only dream about getting previously before. We’ve let it happen.

  27. MikeN says:

    A bigger problem is these new cars that beep if you don’t wear your seat belt.

    Also, the transponders for paying tolls can be used to monitor speed and location better. And when did Congress vote to make air bags mandatory?

  28. Olo Baggins of Bywater says:

    27…seat belt sensors have been in cars for what, 25 years?
    As a little kid the Ohio turnpike would use the time stamp on your toll ticket to determine if you drove too fast. This was 40 years ago. RFID is just quicker…so slow down and quit being a hazard to others.

    24: so you get what you deserve
    As an insured driver at considerable personal expense, I think people who drive like idiots and kill others or themselves deserve to have the truth revealed.

  29. OhForTheLoveOf says:

    #28 – Speeding tickets are not what I am worried about.

    You people really are not thinking with enough paranoia. In a country rapidly declining into a police state, I would think you guys would see the issue clear as day…

  30. KVolk says:

    What about public transit don’t you guys think that’s monitored? Or how about self driving cars, if they become a reality? Or God, or not god if that’s your thing, forbid you fly a plane which is monitored every second of every day. I am amazed how irrational some peoples fears are because they are being “monitored” in a public place acting interacting with other people. If you go to a sporting event in an area does it piss you off because they ask for a ticket. They are monitoring my attendance. Of course the King of incongruities is that you are typing your comments on a device connected to the most monitored system in exsitence……..the internet. Bunch of parnoid idiots who won’t see the real danger when it comes to civil liberties because your so GD worried about a black box in your car.


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