Government to mandate “black boxes” on passenger vehicles?

posted at 11:06 am on April 19, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

Bruce McQuain at QandO picks up on an effort in the Senate to make cars even more expensive than ever.  The MAP-21 bill is already notorious for giving the IRS the power to confiscate passports on suspicion of tax evasion without getting a judge involved or a suspect a chance to defend himself, and its presence as part of the transportation bill makes it a little easier to pass unnoticed through the House.  Another section of MAP-21 would impose a mandate, starting in 2015, to equip every passenger vehicle sold in the US with a “black box” event data recording system:


(a) Mandatory Event Data Recorders-

(1) IN GENERAL- Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall revise part 563 of title 49, Code of Federal Regulations, to require, beginning with model year 2015, that new passenger motor vehicles sold in the United States be equipped with an event data recorder that meets the requirements under that part.

(2) PENALTY- The violation of any provision under part 563 of title 49, Code of Federal Regulations–

(A) shall be deemed to be a violation of section 30112 of title 49, United States Code;

(B) shall be subject to civil penalties under section 30165(a) of that title; and

(C) shall not subject a manufacturer (as defined in section 30102(a)(5) of that title) to the requirements under section 30120 of that title.

Title 49, section 563 relates the requirements for ground-transportation EDRs if added to a vehicle by a manufacturer.  It doesn’t require vehicles to include one — or it doesn’t at the moment.  S.1813 would change that to make it a requirement.

In other words, this will be similar to the black-box requirements for airplanes, used to reconstruct events after a crash or other incidents.  There are a lot of auto accidents in the US, but unlike with commercial aircraft, they don’t usually fall 30,000 feet.  The federal government mandated black boxes on aircraft because so little evidence otherwise survives a catastrophic crash, an outcome that’s rare among traffic accidents involving cars.

Besides that, the federal government has jurisdiction over aviation; they don’t over normal traffic.  If states saw a need for this requirement, they could impose it themselves.  California, for instance, has specific and unique requirements for emission systems in vehicles sold in the state, and automakers adapted by selling California-specific versions of their models.

The next question is who gets access to the data, and that’s a little murky.  The proposal states that the owner of the vehicle owns the data as well, but with some exceptions:

(b) Limitations on Information Retrieval-

(1) OWNERSHIP OF DATA- Any data in an event data recorder required under part 563 of title 49, Code of Federal Regulations, regardless of when the passenger motor vehicle in which it is installed was manufactured, is the property of the owner, or in the case of a leased vehicle, the lessee of the passenger motor vehicle in which the data recorder is installed.

(2) PRIVACY- Data recorded or transmitted by such a data recorder may not be retrieved by a person other than the owner or lessee of the motor vehicle in which the recorder is installed unless–

(A) a court authorizes retrieval of the information in furtherance of a legal proceeding;

(B) the owner or lessee consents to the retrieval of the information for any purpose, including the purpose of diagnosing, servicing, or repairing the motor vehicle;

(C) the information is retrieved pursuant to an investigation or inspection authorized under section 1131(a) or 30166 of title 49, United States Code, and the personally identifiable information of the owner, lessee, or driver of the vehicle and the vehicle identification number is not disclosed in connection with the retrieved information; or

(D) the information is retrieved for the purpose of determining the need for, or facilitating, emergency medical response in response to a motor vehicle crash.

In other words, the vehicle owner retains the data, until (a) a court or (c) and (d) government decides he doesn’t.  Speaking of which, what exactly does (d) mean?  I suppose this is based on the OnStar system, which relays GPS coordinates to a call center when airbags deploy, but that is a private transaction between the owner and the service.  This is supposedly a mandate for event-data recorders, not for transmitters and ongoing two-way communications.  What would a black box have to do with emergency response if all they do is record?  How much surveillance would these EDRs allow, anyway?

I suspect that this is an effort by the Senate to plow the road for a mileage tax.  With gasoline tax revenues expected to drop with the advent of electric and hybrid vehicles (a large assumption, by the way), Democrats have been looking for ways to recoup the lost revenue.  They have repeatedly discussed and occasionally proposed instituting a mileage tax, which would either force drivers to keep extensive records of their travel or to add a device that calculates mileage and transmits it to the government.  Forcing manufacturers to include EDRs would give future Congresses the device necessary for this step; all it would take would be a future modification to Title 49, part 563 to require mileage collection.  There doesn’t appear to be any other pressing reason to add EDRs to the family car.

Addendum: Some cars already include EDRs or their rough equivalents (and have to comply with the existing Title 49 part 563 when they do).  No one is arguing that manufacturers should be barred from adding them, but this should be a choice for manufacturers and buyers, not a mandate.

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