The devices will determine which manufacturer was at fault in an accident


Illustration: iStockphoto

Nearly all late-model cars are equipped with event data recorders (EDRs), also known as black boxes, to capture information such as the speed of the vehicle and the location and time when an accident occurred. Chances are self-driving cars will, too—only in this case, the manufacturer and not the driver might be at fault.

The next big step toward developing EDRs for self-driving vehicles is determining what data to collect. Vehicle manufacturers are not prepared just yet to talk about the onboard capabilities for this application. But several data points are under consideration, including determining when the driver was instructed to take control of the vehicle, when the self-driving mode was activated, when the vehicle was being controlled manually, and the deceleration rate from braking to crash impact.


The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which first regulated what crash data should be collected in 2012, called for enhanced features in self-driving cars’ EDRs in its policy paper published in September. The agency says manufacturers and others should have a documented process for collecting crash data and should record, “at a minimum, all information relevant to the event and the performance of the system, so that the circumstances of the event can be reconstructed.” The report also states that manufacturers should have access to recorded information in crashes involving autonomous vehicles.

That could become a controversial area for the NHTSA, which acknowledges in its report that data sharing is a rapidly evolving area that requires more research and discussion among stakeholders to develop standards.

Currently, the NHTSA requires that EDRs collect 15 data points, including speed at the time of impact, engine rpm, when the brakes were applied, steering angle, whether the driver was wearing a seat belt, and airbag deployment times. The EDR captures about 5 seconds of data from before the crash and stops recording 1 second after it. The NHTSA allows carmakers to collect additional data on the mechanical performance of their vehicles through their EDRs (and most do), but they are not required to disclose that information.

General Motors introduced the first-generation EDR in the mid-1970s with a device that logged airbag deployment. Other automakers, motivated largely by product-liability concerns, followed and then added sensing and diagnostic memory modules to their vehicles in the 1990s to conduct quality-control studies.

EDR technology took off from there. Just about all of today’s cars and light trucks are equipped with a black box. There are many types of recorders. Some continuously record data, overwriting the previous few minutes, until a crash occurs. Others are activated by crashlike events—such as a sudden change in velocity or unexpected change in direction—and continue to record until the vehicle comes to a complete stop.

The United States is not the only country working on updating black boxes for autonomous cars. Germany began rewriting its traffic laws several months ago to accommodate self-driving vehicles, and it says its regulations will require EDRs that can collect crash data and track when a self-driving feature is activated and when a vehicle is being controlled manually. The black boxes also must record whether a driver took control of the self-driving car when instructed by the system to do so. The legislation requires approval by other German ministries before it can become law.


Privacy experts are concerned about the release of data collected by EDRs. Several authorities have taken the position that the owner of the vehicle owns the data. But law enforcement agencies and insurance companies have obtained court orders to examine the data. Much depends on the jurisdiction where the accident occurs.

Carmakers are believed to be defending against lawsuits by developing data-collection criteria for monitoring the performance of their vehicles in real time.

The NHTSA’s report on automated vehicles calls for the industry to work with IEEE and other standards bodies to develop a uniform approach to address data recording and sharing.

Driven by a lack of uniform technical crash data guidelines to help make vehicles and highway transportation safer, the IEEE Standards Association created IEEE 1616 in 2004. It was the first universal standard for motor vehicle EDRs. IEEE 1616 was upgraded to IEEE 1616a in 2010 to provide more consumer protection to prevent data tampering, such as vehicle-identification-number altering and odometer fraud. The standard aims to preserve data quality and integrity to meet federal collection standards. [The Institute]