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If you drive a car that was built in the last couple of years, there’s a very good chance that it’s got a little black box tucked away somewhere, keeping an electronic eye on you. These devices are called Electronic Data Recorders (EDRs), and according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, up to 90% of cars built in 2004 included an EDR of some kind. The idea of an EDR is to store information about the vehicle’s status and the driver’s actions in the last few seconds before an accident.

Every automaker’s EDR collects different data, but most save information such as vehicle speed, braking pressure, signal usage, headlights status, and whether occupants are wearing their seat belts. Increasingly, the data collected by EDRs is being used by police and insurance companies in accident investigations, and a number of people have had serious charges leveled against them based on data taken from their vehicle’s EDR.

In Texas, a 77-year-old woman blamed her car when she drove through a post office window and killed one of the people inside; her car’s EDR indicated the fault of the driver, and the data was used by the victim’s family in a wrongful-death suit. In a similar case, a driver involved in an accident which was fatal to the other party blamed the other driver for the excessive speed… but his own vehicle’s EDR reported his speed at 80mph in a 50mph zone.

This sort of EDR can be a good thing, in theory. It adds impartial, attentive witnesses to traffic accidents, and prevents the unscrupulous from lying their way out of responsibility. It also only records the last few seconds before an accident, alleviating privacy concerns. But in more than one instance, the data recorded by EDRs has been proven highly inaccurate, throwing their reliability into question. There is also the ever-growing concern that future EDRs will record longer-term data, which can be abused by corporations and governments, eroding an individual’s privacy. The harmless little black box of today may evolve into a GPS-enabled babysitter that monitors your every move and wirelessly tattles on you, inviting traffic citations and insurance rate increases whenever it thinks you’ve done something wrong… and there will be very little recourse when the accuser is your own automobile.

Too far fetched? Perhaps not. In 2001, some rental car companies started issuing fines to drivers when the GPS-equipped vehicles detected that the driver had exceeded the speed limit. And just last year, several insurance companies stared pilot programs where some customers were invited to connect special GPS-friendly EDR monitors to their cars. These units send data about driving habits back to the insurance company, directly affecting a driver’s rates. Naturally, drivers operating under such scrutiny are motivated to drive more safely to win the best rebate possible, but some of the devices also keep track of when and where any driving takes place, and includes that data in their rate calculations… so if one drives through a bad part of town or during rush hour, it could make one’s rates go up that month.

True, insurance companies can’t require that all drivers connect monitoring equipment to their automobiles, which means that anyone willing to fork out the non-discounted rate can continue to drive without big brother looking over their shoulder. But once these monitors become commonplace, how long will it be until the “non-discounted” rate is increased to a point well beyond the budget of the average driver? It’s very possible that only the wealthy will be able to afford privacy in the future.

The financially troubled are already getting the short end of the stick in automotive monitoring. There is a growing popularity among car dealerships to install GPS-equipped “On Time” black boxes in a purchased vehicle when the buyer’s credit is less than perfect. This unit, marketed by Payment Protection Systems Inc., sits on the dashboard and informs the driver when their car payment is late. More than four days late, and the car will be prevented from starting until payment is made. Once the car is completely paid off, the owner can have the device removed.

Of course the government also has an active interest in using GPS to follow the movements of citizens. Some states are now considering mandatory GPS units on all cars to allow for mileage-based taxes instead of (or in addition to) tradition per-gallon taxes. Reportedly, they can’t rely on odometer readings for fear that odometers might be tampered with… and they want the option to vary the tax depending on when and where an individual drives.

When a GPS unit is connected to a car, it becomes a trivial matter to store a record of everyplace the driver goes. Some systems will even allow a driver’s location to be tracked in real-time. Do we really need a virtual backseat driver in every vehicle, watching our every move? A GPS unit can be highly useful in an automobile when it reports to the driver; not when it transmits a detailed map of our movements to whomever we must answer to. It seems that 1984 is still on its way, it’s just going to be a few decades later than anticipated.

Further reading:
USA Today article on insurance-company EDRs
The “On Time” system
Wired article on gas-tax GPS units