I’m sure you all know about the black box records in planes that record information about how systems on the plane are performing, including the human system better known as the pilot. When a plane has any type of malfunction ranging from minor items such as bad indicator lights to crashes, the first thing that the airline wants to recover after dealing with the passengers is the black box recorder. (Yes, I just got done reading AirFrame by Michael Crichton. An excellent book as always from Michael.)
But did you know you may have a black box recorder in your car? If you bought a new car this year, you have about a 96% chance of already having a black box installed in your vehicle. Considering the high percentage of new vehicles that already have this device installed, I have to wonder if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has nothing better to do than to draft a new ruling that would require these black box devices (which they call EDRs or Event Data Recorders) to be installed in all new vehicles by fall of 2014. Does that extra 4% really justifies additional interference by a government agency? Or is there something else going on?
A lot of people are afraid that these devices could be used to monitor their driving all of the time and use it as a condition to obtaining or renewing their auto insurance. Others may be afraid that the government is requiring these devices as a first step to track where you are and where you have been. Still others are afraid that it will be linked to some kind of tax that will be levied on you based on the number of miles that you drive your car and perhaps when and when you drive it. Think of it as an opportunity tax on your ability to drive.
Of course the proponents say that the device is very limited and can only record a few seconds before and during a vehicle crash. They imply that it is not in a continuous record mode and even if it were, it could not record more than a dozen seconds or so every dozen seconds or so, it starts at the beginning of the memory range to write over it with new data. The proponents also say that the information collected during crashes could help the manufacturers better monitor the deployment of airbags and other safety devices in cars during real crashes. I guess test car crashes have become too expensive so we are the new crash dummies to provide them with data. They also try to assure those lobbying against these devices that they do not record conversations or the location of the vehicle.
While some states have already moved to insure the privacy of this data making it the property of the car owner and requiring the car owner to consent to it being used, it would seem that these devices are on a slippery slope. As with all new technology, the benefits must be weighed against the risks. In Spiderman, there is a quote, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ Well, maybe Stan Lee did not originate the quote and maybe it has been misquoted. FDR had written in a speech that he never gave because he died the day before he was suppose to give it saying, ‘Today we have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great responsibility.’ There is also a quote in the Bible attributed to Jesus that said, ‘To whom much as been given, much will be expected.’
It seems that variations on that warning about power or authority goes back thousands of years. Perhaps the reason why that is so lies in the fact that it is so often violated. The ‘misuse of power’ or the quote that ‘power has gone to his head’ or ‘ power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ also rings through the ages. I suppose you could even say that the Emperor in the Star Wars saga is an example of absolute power corrupting absolutely.
So what does that have to do with a black box in your car. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. Like the laws in this country that are changed subtly over time by individual case judgments that slowly change the original intent of the law, you could see a slow change over time to the recording capabilities of these black boxes. Each change will be proposed as absolutely sensible and for a good cause. However, taken as a whole, it could change our relationships with our automobiles. Will these devices in the future take over control of the vehicle if they sense a pending crash? Will they be able to sense then the driver is not paying attention to the road because they are falling asleep or are too busy texting and begin reducing the speed of the vehicle? Will they act to save lives or will they simply tattle on us to some central data collection system kept in the deep vaults under Area 51 where the aliens use to be kept? Or are the aliens the ones wanting to collect the data in the first place? Hmmm… Wait there may be an idea for a science fiction book here. Got to go.