Today’s newer vehicles come with a number of bells and whistles, both standard and optional. Many perks, like in-dash navigation, satellite radio and Bluetooth capability, were not readily available even a decade ago. The same could be said for other safety features like side and overhead airbags. You might say that cars have become more comfortable and most importantly, safer in the last few years.
As a driver, you have quite a few responsibilities. In addition to following the rules of the road, there are various expenses you must pay, including an insurance premium. To keep costs low, again, you want to obey the laws while behind the wheel. However, did you know you could also save money by installing a black box inside your vehicle? Did you even know you might already have the technology installed? It is another safety feature that you could – and definitely should – take advantage of!
History of the Black Box
When you hear the phrase “black box”, you probably think of the recorder found in the wreckage following a plane crash. It is usually the first thing investigators look for in the aftermath, as it provides an idea of what happened in the tragic final minutes.
Australian Dr. David Warren (1925-2010) is credited with inventing the device, and presented the first demonstration in 1957, following a mysterious crash involving the “Comet”, the world’s first jet-powered commercial aircraft. Following a plane crash in 1960, Australia became the first country to make the black box mandatory for commercial aircraft. In 1965, the black box was redesigned and moved to the rear of the airplane to increase the chances of recovery following a crash.
On an aircraft, the black box actually consists of two devices, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. Located in the tail of the plane, the device is actually orange in color. Some believe that the name’s origin comes from the original boxes being painted black, while another theory offers the idea that the boxes are usually charred after a fiery crash.
The device is designed and built to withstand extreme conditions and depths. If a plane crash occurs at sea, recording begins as soon as the device hits water. The black box can transmit information from as deep as 14,000 feet. The Cockpit Voice Recorder, as the name suggests, picks up on the conversation between pilots, especially anything leading up to the crash. Investigators not only listen to this dialogue, but also monitor for engine noises, and any warnings or alerts. Investigators also use the black box to determine how fast the plane was traveling, engine RPM and even the cause of the crash, just from the sounds made by the plane.
The second component of the black box – the Flight Data Recorder – assists investigators by documenting the plane’s time, altitude, speed and direction. In addition, the device also provides details on other movements throughout the plane, including wing flaps, autopilot and fuel gauge. As a result, this extra information helps investigators compile computer-generated reconstructions of the crash.
Automobile Usage
Although it may seem like a relatively new concept, the black box technology found in vehicles actually dates back to the mid-1970s, and is becoming more common in newer models. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), roughly 96 percent of the new cars sold in the U.S. have an event data recorder (EDR) installed. This device has helped automakers figure out airbag and vehicle safety trends. EDR data has also led to the introduction of dual-stage or smart airbags, which deploy at one of two speeds, depending on the severity of a crash. The smart airbag has also helped reduce injuries to adults and children involved in a crash.
And that was the original intent of EDRs, to provide researchers and automakers insight on how to make cars safer. However, crash investigators have been able to draw conclusions on whether driver behavior factors into a wreck, thanks to EDRs. The device also allows auto manufacturers to issue notices about defects or recalls, and came in handy during the Toyota unintended acceleration case from the late-2000s to early- 2010s.
While innovative, EDRs have caused a bit of controversy among consumers and lawmakers. Some feel the technology could help make roads safer, others see it as an invasion of privacy or a measure to help automakers cover themselves legally. Meanwhile, many do not even realize their vehicle has an EDR.
Fleet Driving
Incorporating an accelerometer, GPS technology and a cellular modem, telematics devices allow service and fleet managers to monitor their drivers and vehicles, as well as keep track of unsafe driving behavior such as speeding, hard cornering and harsh braking. This helps minimize expenses and vehicle maintenance, and instills a sense of discipline in drivers, who undoubtedly serve as one of the public faces of a company’s brand. The technology also helps managers offer a real-time estimate of when deliveries should arrive at a customer’s doorstep.
Proponents believe that telematics offers many benefits, especially for companies that rely on fleet driving. Rusty Haight, who specializes in reconstructing traffic crashes, says that installing an EDR could make drivers more aware of their behavior, and even eliminate any reckless driving habits due to the device’s presence. Haight also states that EDRs help reduce collisions by up to 20 to 30 percent.
Kathleen Konicki, director of associate safety for Nationwide Insurance also favors installation of the device, noting that for three years, the insurance company used EDRs in its nearly 6,000 Ford vehicles. “The overriding objective was to try to understand the relationship between crash forces and bodily injury,” says Konicki in a 2005 interview with Business Fleet magazine. “We also wanted to study whether or not there was in fact a ‘halo effect’ for fleet car drivers. Did they change their driving behaviors because there was a black box in the car?”
Not everyone wants EDRs to get the green light, however. Some attorneys feel that the device invades a driver’s privacy if he or she is unaware that it exists. One attorney argues that it also violates the driver’s Fifth Amendment right, which protects people from having to answer for a crime without an indictment by a Grand Jury.
Future of the Black Box
Like it or not, as of September 2014, all new cars now include this technology, this after a mandate from NHTSA. The bill requires motorcycles and light passenger vehicles weighing less than 8,500 pounds to include a data recorder (source). The technology apparently works in Germany; in Berlin, police installed data recorders in patrol cars. The result: damage from rescue efforts dropped by more than one-third. German taxi companies also installed the boxes, with the crash rate dropping 66 percent.
Like its aircraft counterpart, an automotive black box acts similarly and helps insurance companies get to the bottom of what caused a crash. The EDR tracks different driving factors like acceleration, braking, steering and airbag deployment that happened before, during and after an accident. It also documents whether the driver and/or passengers wore their seatbelts, and measures the force of impact during a crash. Like the boxes found in planes, automotive EDRs provide ample details for investigators. Unlike a plane, however, the vehicular boxes do not record personal information or conversations.
While the info gathered from the device depends on its manufacturer, some companies might make it tougher to know exactly what happened. As a result of these varying processes, NHTSA enacted a rule making data more easily accessible across the board. This rule standardizes the data collected by black boxes and how it can be retrieved. The Toyota acceleration controversy helped bring any discrepancies to light, as Congressional hearings revealed that the company only had one computer in the U.S. that could read data from these recorders.
A telematics device tracks your vehicle via GPS technology and an accelerometer, giving insurance providers an incisive look into your driving behavior. This behavior might include location, length of time driven, acceleration and handling. Telematics coverage also allows GPS technology to track your vehicle if it is ever stolen and provides personalized driving records. Despite what many may think, an EDR is not the same thing as GPS technology.
Insurance Companies
If you own a vehicle without an EDR installed, telematics could help you land a lower insurance premium as well. With your driving history being logged by this black box computer, your insurance provider learns how safe your driving behavior really is. If you are under the age of 25 or do not have an extensive record, you may find yourself paying a little more for an insurance premium. Therefore, telematics-based insurance (often referred to as “usage-based insurance”) could come in handy for you.
Telematics technology helps insurers measure your driving ability, taking the following factors into consideration:

  • Location
  • How long you have been driving
  • How fast you drive
  • How rapidly you accelerate
  • The way you brake or turn corners

Some companies offer lower insurance premiums for minimal and safe driving, while “Pay as You Go” programs offer a similar benefit for those who do not drive very often. This would probably come in handy if you live in a larger city and take public transportation regularly. However, if you opt for the additional coverage, your provider might recommend that you refrain from driving during high-risk hours, when serious accidents are more likely to occur. These hours usually fall between late night and early morning. While this stipulation would not necessarily forbid you from driving, it could jeopardize a good driving record. In addition, you gain Bonus Points for driving safely, with telematics telling the story of your driving behavior. The coverage also provides a couple of nice benefits, including free anti-theft vehicle tracking and personalized driving records.
So what is the future of EDRs and fleet driving? Fleet managers will learn from the data that is collected from their fleets and leverage this to improve driving efficiencies, increase fleet safety, and save money and time with better routes and time tracking. To me, that’s worth every penny invested.
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