Black box info belongs to the consumer, but it doesn’t always give the full picture

Automobiles create and capture vast troves of data. Some of it is kept on what are known as black boxes and on other microcomputers in vehicles.

It’s not always understood who owns this data as well as other information flowing from vehicles. Nor is it clear how the data is collected, stored and shared with third parties. At a time when the number of connected cars on the road is mushrooming, the confusion can be unsettling.

“Our big fear is that automakers get you to give away all your data at the closing in the dealership,” said Jeff Plungis, lead automotive investigative reporter at Consumer Reports. “It’s one document in a giant stack that you are signing under pressure. … Our contention is that because this is a sort of new thing for motorists to deal with, they’re not understanding all the implications of what they’re giving up.”

A 2015 law tried to provide clarity. The Driver Privacy Act affirmed that vehicle owners and lessees own data logged on black boxes, officially called event data recorders, or EDRs, which record information such as vehicle speed, crash forces and braking events.

But the law is narrow in scope. It doesn’t apply to other data repositories in vehicles.

That’s troublesome for two reasons, said Sean Kane, safety researcher at Safety Research & Strategies Inc. One is that event data recorders are not the telltale devices that offer comprehensive or conclusive portraits of crashes that people believe, he said. Second, information that can present a fuller picture of crashes or vehicle condition is often not stored on the recorder and therefore is more difficult for owners or their representatives to obtain.

“The concerning part is what the EDR data doesn’t give you,” Kane said. “It never gives you the full picture, and it’s easily misunderstood. So you need the other data to get an idea of what really happened — the level of detail that’s stored on some of these other modules can be much more granular, and in some cases, it can tell a very different story than the EDR.”

Crash data is one small subsection of available vehicular data. Automakers can record, share and store information about diagnostics, location, a driver’s entertainment preferences and more. But safety-related data might be particularly valuable for both automakers and insurance companies, and tussles over ownership and access have already occurred. In 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board revoked Tesla’s status as a party to a crash investigation because it said the company had released selective data that set early narratives about a fatal crash involving its Autopilot driver-assist system.

In 2014, 20 automakers agreed on privacy principles put forth by their chief lobbying organization, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, that committed to providing consumers “clear, meaningful and prominent” notices when they collected, used or shared location information, biometrics and driver-behavior information.

Bottom line: Consumers should be wary.