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From F1 to the A1 - black box technology and privacy issues

By Gerry Bucke, General Manager, Adrian Flux - car insurance specialist on 10 Nov, 2014

Google’s driverless car is pretty smart but your own car is about to get a whole lot smarter too.

It’s also going to get a whole lot safer and become incredibly well-informed about the kind of driver you are. How is this going to happen? Because of a revolutionary little black box. If installed in your car, as many insurers hope it will be, it will make your driving safer and save you money on your premium. But it could also mean that your ability to control your car might be taken out of your hands in certain situations and your personal sense of privacy will shift considerably.

Quite simply if this little black box is installed, the days of your car - and not you - being considered the real driver are literally just around the corner. Your car will become so aware and responsive that it’ll be able to sense the weather, your state of alertness, if you’re using your mobile phone illegally, and adjust your driving speed if you’re too close to the car in front.

So what is this little black box? It’s called telematics and was originally developed in Formula 1, and has actually been widely used in commercial trucking for the past decade. There are already more than 300,000 of these black boxes being used in the UK to accurately, and independently, monitor mileage, provide assistance in the event of an accident and ultimately make trucking safer and lower the cost of insurance.

The first principles behind telematics are simple: fit a black box which transmits driving data such as speed, acceleration and braking g-force, steering angle and mileage from your car to your insurers, and pay lower insurance premiums. Telematics is all about transparency and proving you’re a safe, law abiding driver with data to back it up so you don’t get pigeon-holed and end up paying higher premiums simply because of your age.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the application of telematics to everyday cars is way off in the future or that it’s limited to truckers. It’s not. It’s here today. Many young people, keen to prove they are safe drivers are using it to reduce their insurance premiums but it’s likely in the very near future that every single car in the UK could be monitored and those who say no might be forced into paying higher premiums.”

But soon, a second principle might kick in. Not only will the telematic box transmit data to your insurer it could also intervene with driving itself. Sharing data is all well and good but if your car could detect when you’re driving dangerously close to the car in front and apply the breaks, that’s where the real safety benefit comes into play. It’s at that point you might begin to wonder who the real driver is and how far such intervention can and should go.

Well, further than you might be aware. Telematics can already intervene with other in-car technology: your radio can be turned down or off if the driving conditions are considered too demanding, especially at speed or when the weather is bad. Ford is using these very technologies with its MyKey system which allows parents to set limits on the car’s top speed, in-car audio volume and even stop the kids disarming the traction control systems.

The best feature perhaps that telematics has to offer is in the event of an accident. The black box can send a message to claims handlers to notify them of a sudden change in g-forces. They can then telephone the device itself (which can be used as a phone), see if you are OK and see if emergency services are required. Operatives can take down details of the incident immediately, speeding up the claims process and help prevent potentially fraudulent claims by asking for information about the other vehicle – such as how many people are in the vehicle. But if they don’t receive a response from your car, emergency services will be alerted within minutes and directed to the location, potentially saving your life.

The other big questions of course with this level of technological intervention are about freedom and privacy. Are we handing over too much control to the machines? And are we giving away too much information to our insurers in the name of safer driving?

If technology is controlling our cars, isn’t there the possibility that safety could go full circle and be somehow compromised? What if you needed a little extra speed, over the legal limit, to avoid an accident, but the speed limiter is set firm and won’t allow it? What then? As for privacy, how will each driver be personally identified? Can the black box accurately identify who is driving - can it put a name and address to a driving style? In both cases, if you can’t control the car or the car can’t distinguish between you and your mother driving then who is liable if a collision occurs?

Clearly there’s a need for a lot of thought to be given about these issues and of course legislation too but without a precedent it will be tough going. One thing’s for sure, manufacturers, drivers, insurers, lawyers and even experts in ethics all need to be involved to figure out the best way forward.