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Electronic Control Modules (“Black Box”)

Invasion of Privacy or a Source of Reliable Information?

Each new vehicle is now equipped with several computer chips that serve a variety of functions. When you take your new car in for service, the service department hooks your vehicle up to their computer and determines the problem.

In addition to these chips which help the vehicle’s performance and diagnostics, practically all new cars and trucks are now fitted with computerized sensing and diagnostic modules. These devices are commonly called "black boxes" but are properly known as Electronic Control Modules (ECM) and consist of several small computer chips (ePROM’s) that permanently record vital information in the chip after a collision.

Although car makers have been installing these modules in vehicles for several years, only recently has it only become public knowledge just how many of them there are and how sophisticated they have become.

Car makers say that the devices are invaluable aids in generating data about car crashes and, like the black box devices in aircraft, can help to make future occupant protection systems more effective.

On the other hand some consumer groups are concerned the data collected in accidents could also be used by the car companies to their advantage in litigation. Fears have been raised akin to allegations that Bill Gates is using new Microsoft software to spy on personal computers.

Although the collection of crash data is vital to engineer safer cars, there are concerns about what use might be put to the ability of advanced sensory modules in air bag sensing systems to capture such information as the speed of the car and whether the driver was wearing a seat belt and had applied the brakes before on impact.

Soon it is expected that investigators at the scene of a crash will be able to connect a laptop computer to the sensor module and download such data immediately. This data could be important in assessing who is responsible for a crash, whether they were driving carelessly or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Already lawyers in the US have alleged that vehicle manufacturers intend to use such data as a defense in legal actions, and it is becoming a major issue whether the car companies should be compelled to release the information publicly.

The simple fact is that most every newer car has these data collection devices that collection information including:

  • Engine speed (rpm’s) for the 5 seconds before impact
  • Vehicle speed (mph) for the 5 seconds before impact
  • The throttle position (on or off)
  • Seat belt condition (belted or unbelted)
  • Air bag deployment
  • ABS operation

This information belongs to the vehicle owner and it is a treasure trove of valuable information about the operation of the vehicle’s operation before the accident. This information can be obtained by attorneys before anyone else, but it requires special equipment to hook up to the vehicle and obtain the readout. The information cannot be erased accidentally, and should be preserved.

Some law firms and investigators have purchased their own equipment to tap into this information, and there are several local engineering firms that are equipped to gather this information for you. If you have any type of accident, it is now critical that you are aware of this technology and employ it to the best interests of your clients.

What is more, you should make sure you learn early in your investigation whether the vehicles were equipped with ECMs. This information is not readily available and is usually only available from the auto makers themselves.

Practitioners must be prepared to adapt to the many changes brought about technological advances and protect their clients’ interests.