'Black boxes' will soon be required in vehicles in Europe, but won't record audio

BRUSSELS (TND) — One year ago, the European Union announced a new regulation on vehicles that would require them to be equipped with "black boxes," according to the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC).

The new regulation establishes 15 mandatory advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) which will be mandatory in all vehicles built and sold as of that year, starting in the summer of 2022, with an additional requirement in second-hand vehicles starting in May 2024.

One of those systems is an "event data recorder" capable of recording events in the vehicle, which is very similar to the "black boxes" found in airplanes that survive crashes and can provide data to investigators.

At the time of the new regulation's passing, then-Commissioner Elbieta Biekowska, who was responsible for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, said the step was taken to help reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on the road in Europe.

Every year, 25,000 people lose their lives on our roads. The vast majority of these accidents are caused by human error. We can and must act to change this," said Biekowska. "With the new advanced safety features that will become mandatory, we can have the same kind of impact as when the safety belts were first introduced. Many of the new features already exist, in particular in high–end vehicles. Now we raise the safety level across the board, and pave the way for connected and automated mobility of the future.

The new mandatory ADAS features include "intelligent speed assistance," "black boxes," cameras and sensors to increase safety while reversing, and a warning system used to alert drivers of their own distractedness (like looking at cell phones) and drowsiness, according to the EU. Those systems will be mandatory in all vehicles starting in July 2022.

For just cars and vans, lane-keeping lane-keeping assistance, advanced emergency braking, and crash-test improved safety belts will all be mandatory ADAS features, the EU says.

For trucks and busses, the EU will be requiring the improvement of direct vision in those vehicles and the removal of blind spots. Systems that will detect and warn truck and bus drivers of other drivers at the front and side of those large vehicles, with the EU saying "especially when making turns."

The Commission expects that the proposed measures will help save over 25,000 lives and avoid at least 140,000 serious injuries by 2038," the EU says in a statement on its website. "This will contribute to the EU's long-term goal of moving close to zero fatalities and serious injuries by 2050 ("Vision Zero").

While these new safety regulations are meant to be for the good of the public, the "black boxes," which record vehicle data, are reportedly a privacy concern, even after steps were taken to assure the public only certain authorities could access them.

The data being recorded in the "black boxes" includes vehicle speed, braking, whether of not seatbelts are being worn, and various other data points useful to investigators looking into a crash. However, as Forbes reports, this data can be used against a driver in court.

In civil litigation, this data will help to determine the course of events and may help to determine which vehicle was responsible for the collision," contributing writer Marina Medvin wrote in her Forbes article in 2019. "In criminal investigations, the black box may incriminate or exculpate the accused.

In apparent response to the privacy concern, the European Commission recently published the final technical specifications for the "black box" devices, which bans the retrieval of data containing location, date, and time information from the devices, according to the ETSC.

All data retrieved from the boxes is reportedly promised to be anonymized, and unlike airplane black boxes, no conversations will be recorded like pilots in a cockpit. The Connexion, a French publication, says the "black boxes" only record data in five-second bursts.

The ETSC believes this ban is a mistake, as the allowed data will be "of little use to safety experts."

Information on location, date and time is critical to road safety researchers and in-depth collision investigations, because, as in the aviation sector, the data can be used to help analyse the circumstances of a collision and to help prevent a similar situation occurring in the future," the ETSC says in a statement. For example, without the data on location it would be impossible for researchers to determine based on the EDR data whether the vehicle was traveling at an inappropriate speed, as the relevant road, and therefore the applicable speed limit, would not be traceable.

Black boxes only store data when a crash occurs, the ETSC says, so there was never any question black boxes were used to continuously track vehicle movements, the ETSC claims.

This really is an own-goal for road safety," says Frank Mütze, vehicle safety specialist at ETSC, according to the safety council. "The original purpose of requiring EDRs in new vehicles was to provide a data source to help prevent future crashes. Ruling out the retrieval of location and time information renders the device data virtually useless to road safety researchers. We hope that this legislation can be reviewed and updated as soon as possible.

Most modern cars already contain some sort of event data recorder, with major manufacturers like Toyota and Buick already installing them in their newer vehicles sold around the world.

In response to the question "does my car have a black box?" Rislone answers "if your car is a model from this century, there’s a fair chance you do indeed, have a black box fitted somewhere within it."

Black boxes have been in some of the major American car brands, like Buick, Chevy and Cadillac, since all the way back to 1994," Rislone says. "The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been using them to collect car accident data since early in the 2000s. If your car is from 2013 or later, you are almost guaranteed to have a black box. Less than 5 percent of new cars came without one in 2013, and they are mandated in all new vehicles since 2014.