GM holds lead in installing 'black boxes' in its vehicles

February 28, 2000|By Rob Kaiser | Rob Kaiser,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Black boxes aren't just for airplanes anymore.

General Motors has begun putting less sophisticated versions of the boxes, which they call "event data recorders," into automobiles.

It started in the 1970s when air bag sensors began recording cars' velocity at the time of crash impact. GM has added more monitoring functions in the past few years, including recording the speed of the vehicle, throttle position and brake use at the time of a crash -- as well as whether the driver was wearing a seat belt.

Other automakers say they haven't equipped their air bags with these capabilities because of privacy concerns, but they may soon follow GM.

"A number of companies are watching to see what the public reaction is," said Phil Haseltine, president of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety.

In some General Motors cars, including the Cadillac Seville, Buick Century and Chevrolet Camaro, data are collected at one-second intervals. When an accident occurs, the five seconds of data captured before the crash are stored. GM technicians can download the data to a laptop computer with the permission of the car owner.

Haseltine says GM collects the data not to protect itself from lawsuits, but to improve the design of air bags. Information from crashes, beyond what the manufacturers learn from simulations, helps GM determine when air bags should deploy and with what amount of force.

Some people fear the information could be used improperly by automakers or insurance companies.

"Absent a court order, generally the information is owned by the person who owns the vehicle," Haseltine said.

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