Obama administration proposes making ‘black boxes’ mandatory in new cars

The Department of Transportation is considering requiring automobiles to be equipped with the accident recorders that are used on airplanes. 

The "event data recorders," or black boxes, as they are most often called, are used by investigators to determine the circumstances that led to crashes, even when vehicles are destroyed before they are recovered.

The DOT proposal calls for black boxes to be installed in all cars that are manufactured after Sept. 1, 2014. The department said the cost of carrying out the requirement would be about $20 per car.

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"We believe that the costs of installing EDRs are minimal because the devices involve the capture into memory of data that are already being processed by the vehicle, and not the much higher costs of providing sensors to obtain much of that data in the first place," the agency said.

The rule would be enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA had already passed requirements for the types of data that should be captured by black boxes in cars that were manufactured after Sept. 1, 2012. However, that rule did not mandate all cars to contain the devices. 

The trade group for automakers, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said it was open to placing data recorders in cars because its members found the boxes useful for testing the performance of their models.

But the group also expressed concern about the privacy of drivers who purchased cars containing them.

"Event data recorders help our engineers understand how cars perform in the real world but looking forward, we need to make sure we preserve privacy," the group said in a statement after the DOT announcement. "Automakers do not access EDR data without consumer permission, and any government requirements to install EDRs on all vehicles must include steps to protect consumer privacy."

The auto alliance pointed out that more than 90 percent of cars manufacturered after DOT's first rule on black boxes was issued would be equipped with black boxes.

But DOT said barring a mandate on the installation of black boxes in all cars, the rest of automakers' fleets would not be manufactured with accident recorders.

"The agency is issuing this proposal because we believe that, without a regulation, EDRs will remain absent from the estimated 8 percent of the current light vehicle fleet that lacks an EDR," the DOT's notice of the black box proposal said.

"We believe that requiring all light vehicles required to have frontal air bags to be equipped with EDRs would help improve vehicle safety for consumers, while imposing relatively limited costs on the automobile industry," the agency continued.

This story was updated with automakers' response to the DOT proposal at 3:49 p.m.