® Event data recorders

In 2014 while still working for corporate Kawasaki as a trainer and training supervisor, I was informed about and encouraged to discuss with dealers the fact that Kawasaki would begin publishing a statement in its owner's manuals revealing to customers the existence of event data recording (EDR) programming in its streetbike ECUs (rather famously in retrospect, the EX300 -- the baby Ninja -- was the first Kawasaki roadbike with EDR). I would soon learn there was a law requiring manufacturers to alert buyers to the EDR's presence, and this is being complied with in owner's manuals. Industry media also began reporting on the emergence of EDRs on bikes at this same time, with a well known example a Rider magazine article. All motorcycle manufacturers are using EDRs today.

EDRs probably began in some form with aircraft flight data recorders. However, a joint General Motors and NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an arm of the Dept. of Transportation) experimental project saw EDRs used for the first time in a limited number of cars as early as 1974. The EDRs enabled GM to study collision data, especially concerning injury and wrongful death claims involving first-generation airbags. You know, those that killed old ladies and children and the reports about which scared the piss out of a lot of us and which resulted in most vehicles having added to them an "off" switch on the passenger side. Not long after, fleet managers relied on EDR-like systems to tell them at what speeds their vehicles were being driven, and eventually insurance and law enforcement investigators began accessing vehicle EDR data in accident reconstruction. Interestingly, almost all EDR-bolstered criminal cases result in plea agreements, illustrating the dread with which the accused regard them.

By 2004 70 percent of cars had EDRs, voluntarily installed on the assembly line by their manufacturers. Ten years later, in 2014, just before EDRs became mandatory, almost 100 percent of car manufacturers installed them, at an estimated cost of less than 50 cents per vehicle. Bombardier, maker of the best-selling personal watercraft (PWC), the Sea-Doo, may have been first in the powersports industry to include EDRs, and the Kawasaki Jet-Ski had vehicle usage data downloading capability soon after. This may be because PWC are over-represented in personal injury claims among their manufacturers, making vehicle use monitoring the most urgent in this product category.

Despite increasing use in legal contests, the courts do not yet view EDR data as infallible though they are allowing law enforcement very wide lattitude due to already accepted liberal standards regarding motor vehicle searches. It appears the "diminished expectation of privacy"doctrine that allows searching a car for virtually any reason has been applied to EDRs. As with most motor vehicle borne informational technologies, laws standardizing EDR function and data retrieval eventually emerged, in 2012, making them all work the same. Two years later, a consortium including the NHTSA and insurance and doctor groups succeeded in making EDRs mandatory on all vehicles for the 2015 model year (senate bill 1831 section 31406). The NHTSA further called for EDRs to collect information from 15 inputs minimum, including throttle opening, engine rpm, wheel speed, vehicle speed, braking force, chassis attitude, etc. Many EDRs can receive data from as many as 45 sources, including such unexpected input as vehicle seat occupancy and cabin noise level. EDRs are fairly passive most of the time and simply pass through data, until, similar to an airbag deploy, they are triggered by an event, at which time they preserve a 5 to 30 second long data storing session (depending on vehicle, model, and input types). Motorcycle application is currently somewhat more limited as motorcycles move in more planes than do cars, although the emerging use of electronic gyros (omni-directional inertia sensors) in some bikes today, as they have been in cars for decades, is closing that gap.

EDR data is of course encrypted, making unauthorized viewing and tampering difficult. However, several companies make readers available, which law enforcement has and uses in criminal investigation. First responders such as EMTs are also said to use EDR data to help determine the best immediate treatment of accident victims. Powersports dealers are not expected by their OEMs to have retrieval tools and as far as I know, none do.

Many privacy groups fear EDR "mission creep", i.e. a widening of the scope of EDR data use and availability until it amounts to constant monitoring of people, especially since the technology exists to add GPS to EDR, resulting in the equivalent of electronic surveillance. Currently, a third of US states have laws controlling EDRs for privacy reasons, making the vehicle owner the owner of the data. But the precedent has already been established making for example cell phones fair game (key people at some companies carry two phones) and most states allow law enforcement override of EDR privacy protection, while some insurance companies do end runs around privacy when they buy the damaged vehicle...along with its EDR. Privacy is in fact the biggest concern at present, and at least three electronics companies have responded by offering devices which claim to turn your vehicle's EDR off.

Not only do our sensor-laden, camera and computer equipped cars brake and accelerate on their own, and if some folks have their way, soon without even a driver. But they and our bikes also are able to "rat" on us now, if you will, and more to the point, have become yet one more way in which personal freedom is eroding at an alarming rate. Even the most ardent supporter of EDRs regard them as a two-edged sword, giving while at the same time taking. The promise of safer motoring at the cost of steadily vaporizing autonomy continues to divide earnest and sincere people, much as was the case with ABS (antilock braking systems) and even safety helmets long before that. Perhaps as in those examples we'll one day look back with incredulity that we ever doubted the benefit of EDRs. But I'm not so sure.

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© 1996-2017 Mike Nixon