Unbeknownst to most drivers, millions of General Motors Corp. vehicles are equipped with “black boxes” that record speed and other information before crashes.
The recordings help GM study ways to improve airbag performance and vehicle safety, and some other automakers use similar, albeit less-advanced, recorders. GM's device constantly collects information and keeps a recording from five seconds before an airbag deploys.
Though geared toward improving highway safety, the technology has sparked a debate about privacy and who should have access to the information. While the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio deems the technology as a way to spy on people, Toledo police Sgt. Paul Kerschbaum calls the recorders a potentially useful backup tool for investigating serious accidents.
Some local GM buyers simply are unhappy they weren't told their cars and trucks are equipped with the recorders, typically tucked among other components in dashboards or under seats. Some knew such technology existed, but they had no idea recorders were on their vehicles.
“You definitely have to know what's on it,” Toledoan Billy Joe Smith said last week while eyeing his shiny black 2002 GMC Envoy.
The devices are mentioned in GM vehicle owner's manuals, but in a section about the airbags, which many drivers don't read.
Recorders have been widely used by GM since the mid-1990s, and they are on all GM cars and trucks since the 2000 model year. Ford Motor Co. now has recorders on all of its vehicles too, but they are absent on Jeeps and other Chrysler models.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and GM started using the devices three decades ago that are reminiscent of so-called black boxes on aircraft. They are factory installed and connected to the airbag system, and are not the same as the similarly named boxes sold to parents for monitoring teenage drivers.
Information, such as speed, driver seatbelt use, deployment of brakes, and engine revolutions, is collected at one-second intervals on GM's latest recorders, made by Delphi Corp. of Troy, Mich. The recorders are roughly the size of a small pack of index cards and often are called a “sensing and diagnostic module” or “event data recorder.”
“You really can't put a price on that,” Mr. Cooney said. “That's why the police like them, because the data doesn't lie.”
Even Mr. Smith, the local GMC Envoy owner, said he understands the benefit of having the device.
“If you're in an accident, and someone claims you're at fault when you're not and the black box can prove it, that would help you,” said the owner of Ebony Construction Co. in Sylvania.
VetronixCorp. of Santa Barbara, Calif., started selling a device to decipher GM's black boxes about 21/2 years ago. Nearly 1,000 decoder systems have been sold, primarily to those who reconstruct accidents, including the Ohio State Highway Patrol, Dayton police, and State Farm Insurance Cos. of Amherst, Ohio, according to Vetronix.
The California company made a decoder specifically for GM's use in 1990. It was asked by GM about three years ago to develop one for the public so the automaker wouldn't get subpoenaed for information, said Don Gilman, business unit manager with Vetronix.
Vetronix is working with Ford to develop a decoder that will come out this year, he said. The company is working with other automakers too, but they're not ready to publicly release the information they gather, he added.
Toledo police have considered getting a decoder but likely will wait until recorders are standardized among automakers so one unit can be purchased, Sergeant Kerschbaum said. An auto dealer once loaned police equipment to get information off the black box of a stolen pickup that struck a pedestrian, he said.
“Unfortunately, we couldn't get any information we needed off of it,” the sergeant said.
GM and other manufacturers don't routinely download recorded information without owner permission, but there are legal means to get the data for lawsuits or police investigations. Recorders on all Ford-made vehicles capture some basic information for one-tenth of a second before an airbag is deployed, including deceleration, a spokesman said. Cars and light trucks from DaimlerChrysler AG's U.S. brands don't have black boxes, a company official said.
Of potential concern for drivers is the possibility an insurance company will challenge a driver's claim after taking possession of a salvaged vehicle and getting readouts from its recorder, but those issues could be addressed under policies, said Phil Haseltine, president of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, Inc., in Arlington, Va.
“Some of the ownership issues aren't fully resolved,” conceded Mr. Haseltine, whose group is funded by the automotive industry. “As long as the ownership remains with the vehicle's owner or lessor, then I think the vast majority of the privacy problem goes away.”
The recorders will become more widely used by engineers as technology advances, such as gauging how close someone is to an airbag and the need to determine effectiveness increases, Mr. Haseltine said.
“In general, it's pretty fair to say that at this point, they're underutilized,” he said.
Those technological advances are of utmost concern to Raymond Vasvari, the ACLU of Ohio's legal director. Public policy is needed to regulate the use of information from recorders, especially as data becomes increasingly detailed, he said.
Orwellian “Big Brotherism” is being replaced by such small steps of “Little Brotherism,” Mr. Vasvari said.
“It very much concerns us,” he said. “This is just another step in that direction.”
Consumers, though, have benefited from recorders.
Ford this year agreed to pay an Illinois woman's survivors $1.5 million after the recorder in her 1998 Ford Ranger pickup revealed airbags deployed too late. GM a couple of years ago recalled nearly 500,000 Chevrolet Cavaliers and Pontiac Sunfires after data from recorders showed airbags were deploying too slow as customers claimed, said Mr. Haseltine of the automotive safety coalition.
GM, meanwhile, was sued a couple of years ago for allegedly violating customer privacy with the recorders, but the New Jersey lawsuit seeking class action status was dismissed. The dismissed case claimed GM didn't tell consumers the recorders existed or what they do.
The recorders are described in GM manuals for owners.
But Mr. Smith isn't the only owner who hasn't noticed their mention.
Said Toledoan Michele Baczewski of the owner's manual for her 1999 Oldsmobile Alero: “If something goes off and I don't know what it is, I'll look it up. That's how I use that.”