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'Black Boxes' Aren't Just for Airplanes Any More

More than two-thirds of the new cars - foreign and domestic - sold in the United States this year will be equipped with so-called black boxes. In fact, about a third of all the vehicles on the American road today have such devices.

These are not like the airliner black boxes that record long periods of audio from the cockpit and streams of data about the performance of the plane's technical systems. Famously and tragically, those kinds of boxes, when recovered from crash sites, often provide important clues to what might have brought the plane down.

Those black boxes actually aren't black but are bright orange, to make them easier to find in wreckage. In automobiles, they're not black, either. In fact, they're not even boxes! They're electronic components built into newer cars' computer systems. You cannot disable these sensors by yanking a few wires. They are built so deeply into the guts of the onboard computer that they're almost tamper-proof.

Automobile black boxes do not record voices or sniff out whether drivers have been drinking. In fact, they don't even turn on unless and until there's a crash so serious that the vehicle's air bags deploy.

But these sensors do record the car's speed, starting about five seconds before a high-speed accident. And they measure the degree to which the driver applied the brakes, and whether or not the driver and passengers had buckled their seat belts. Big auto companies and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration gather black-box data from these serious crashes to improve auto safety systems.

Highway police and insurance companies like to get hold of this information, too. They can in some states and communities, but are not allowed access in other places without permission from the car's owner.

Some advocacy groups oppose putting black boxes in cars. They consider them an invasion of owners' privacy. But data sensors are showing up in more and more vehicles each year, whether people like it or not.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.