by Jim Kerr

A vehicle may be a necessity to many of us but it is also an expression of personal freedom. From the time we first get a driver’s license, we make choices about where we want to go, when we want to go, and who to take with us. We do this assuming that what we do isn’t monitored by others. In most cases this is true but there are exceptions. Did you know that big brother might be watching you?

The check-engine light is illuminated on the dashboard. You take the vehicle into the service shop to have it repaired, and when the technician hooks-up a computer scan tool, he or she may see some interesting information. Whenever a code is stored in the vehicle’s computer, it also stores concurrent information about the vehicle’s operation. Occasionally, a technician tells the owner that the code was caused by high vehicle speed. Usually this occurs when there are teenage drivers in the family.

Many vehicles have speed-limiting built into their computers. The maximum allowable speed is typically based on the speed rating of the tires with which the vehicle was originally equipped from the factory. Try to go faster and the computer will cut off the fuel injection and this causes engine misfire and erratic oxygen sensor readings. A code initiates the recording of data for future reference. Fortunately, I don’t know of any cases where the warranty has been compromised due to data revealing excessive speed; but I do know of young people that have had driving privileges restricted.

Electronic monitoring and data collection may also be performed by vehicle airbag computers. Similar in function to the “black box” data recorders used in aircraft, vehicle airbag data recorders were used as early as 1994 in some GM vehicles, and Ford started using them in 2001 on some models. There is a push by safety agencies to have this type of data recorder installed in all new vehicles.

These automotive black boxes are capable of recording several types of data. The newer the system, the more data recorded. When an airbag deploys, the newest systems will record what the driver was doing with the accelerator pedal, if the brakes were applied, vehicle speed, seat belt use and engine-speed along with various other data.

Up to five-seconds worth of operating information, prior to airbag deployment, may be saved by these devices. Examining the data reveals driver reaction and vehicle speed etc. just prior to impact. Some black boxes record this information during a “near miss” situation, when only one airbag sensor is activated, even though the airbags did not deploy.

Currently, automotive technicians are unable to access this information, but the manufacturer can for the purpose of airbag system evaluation. This information is not generally released to anyone. However, under certain circumstances, the police may access this information with the aid of the manufacturer or special computer programs.

The resulting data may find its way into a courtroom during a civil or criminal action. Such information has been used in court to prosecute an at-fault driver in a fatal collision. For careful drivers, this may be good news, but it still is big brother watching.

OnStar, General Motors GPS and cell phone-based communication system can locate your vehicle within a few feet and read the data from the vehicle’s computers. This can save lives, such as when the air bags have deployed, and it can also provide peace of mind by letting the OnStar operator tell you if a vehicle problem is serious or minor. Can it be used to follow you? Not really.

OnStar can locate and track a vehicle but only if the driver reports the vehicle stolen or the police have obtained a court order to allow the OnStar operator to do this. If so, the vehicle position is reported to the police. Otherwise, the vehicle position is only monitored when the driver pushes the OnStar button and asks for information.

The vehicle’s location is then used to provide driving directions to where the driver wants to go. Other people are unable to phone the OnStar centre and ask for your location. Your travels are your own personal business.

Many commercial trucks use this type of communications link to monitor vehicle location. However, such systems provide vehicle speed and location, enabling the tracing of shipments. It also aids driver safety should problems develop on the road.

There are companies that build data recorders that plug into a vehicle’s computer system in order to monitor the vehicle’s speed, distance, run time and engine speed. These are often advertised as methods of monitoring the driving habits of young family members. While such devices work, there is the philosophical debate about whether we should be electronically monitoring our youth or building a relationship founded on trust and responsibility.

I personally believe that vehicle data recorders are good things, but only when used to improve vehicle design and enhance occupant safety. I further believe they, and the information they hold, are the personal property of the vehicle owner and as such, the data should not be used adversely. There are many arguments for and against the use of data recorders.

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