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How ‘Black Boxes’ In Autonomous Cars Will Be Used to Blame Humans

Is that a bad thing, though?
Image: Flickr/Becky Stern

In the wake of a Tesla car's fatal crash while on autopilot, German lawmakers are proposing mandatory "black boxes" for self-driving cars, similar to the devices in airplanes that record the moments before a fatal accident.

The idea is that this type of recorder would help authorities piece together what happened in the moments before a collision, and determine whether a human or a machine was to blame. The proposed legislation, Reuters reported, would first require that the passenger in a self-driving car be ready to take the wheel in the case of an emergency. Secondly, it would require that the black box record "when the autopilot system was active, when the driver drove and when the system requested that the driver take over."


Black boxes in cars aren't new, and "event data recorders" are already installed in most newer vehicles. They measure everything from a car's speed to whether or not a seatbelt is in use right before a crash. While these devices are pitched as a way to improve car and driver safety, they've been increasingly used as evidence in court and by authorities to assign blame in a crash.

"It may allow companies to mount a proper defense in the event that their technology is blamed"

"The belief is that the most likely culprit is going to be the human, or another human in another vehicle," said George Iny of the Automobile Protection Association, which aims to protect consumer interests in the auto marketplace. "It may allow companies to mount a proper defense in the event that their technology is blamed."

Privacy advocates have long been wary of event data recorders in regular cars, and the risk of sensitive information getting into the wrong hands will be the same for autonomous vehicles, Iny said.

The issue is who gets to see the data from black boxes. A 2015 article in the Washington University Law Review noted that self-driving cars, if they record location information and that data isn't properly protected, could essentially become corporate surveillance devices that relay our favourite shopping and dining locations to anyone willing to pay for the information.

Car manufacturers "could easily sell the data collected from individuals to commercial retailers and tailor ads specific to individual vehicles owners," it says.

Event data recorders in cars don't currently track location information, however. Numerous states, including California and New York, already have laws in place that set limits on how and when law enforcement can access data from event data recorders. In Canada, information from event data recorders may only be shared with, say, an insurance company with the car owner's consent or a court order.

There is a loophole, however, according to one source who spoke only on background. If a car is totaled and purchased by the insurance company after the crash, then the third party may give itself permission to download information from the black box.

The upside of black boxes will be that manufacturers have more data on hand to figure out why a computer made the wrong call while driving, Iny said. However, experts on the types of algorithms that power some autonomous vehicles have noted that reams of raw data from machine brains really doesn't tell us much about their decisions.

Instead, the immediate utility for black boxes appears to exist for companies that wish to quickly exonerate their self-driving tech in the event of a collision. And if legislators don't proceed carefully, they could be used to spy on us, too.