Ireland kicks off wireless 'black boxes' for cars

A system created by IBM and Safety Intelligence Systems will instantly receive crash data from vehicles, which could prove a boon for insurers but raises some privacy issues

The Irish government on Thursday launched a plan to improve driving safety by implementing a nationwide automobile-crash information network, a system which could ultimately be extended across the European Union.

Working with technology and service providers Safety Intelligence Systems (SIS) and IBM, the project is to allow airline-style "black boxes" embedded in automobiles to instantly transmit crash data to a centralised database, allowing emergency services to respond to accidents much more quickly.

Automobile makers, insurers and other organisations would also have access to the data, which could be valuable for insurance claim investigation, automobile design and monitoring of commerical fleets, but also raises questions around privacy.

The European Safety Data Vault, as it is called, is part of a European Commission initiative to improve road safety, with the goal of a 50 percent reduction in crash-related deaths by 2010, partly through equipping cars with the ability to automatically notify emergency services in the event of accidents.

Ireland is the first member state to implement an "e-Call" system, according to IBM and SIS, who said other European countries will be able to centralise their own systems on the Irish database. The Irish Prime Minister is to take the rotating EU presidency on 1 January.

IBM, SIS and US firm Insurance Services Office collaborated on a similar system in the US called Global Safety Data Vault, which launched last year. SIS said both systems are designed with the dual purpose of increasing road safety and harvesting vaulable information.

"Every day, people are injured in crashes, but the information surrounding these unfortunate events simply disappears," said SIS president Dr Ricardo Martinez in a statement. "With our European and Global Safety Data Vaults, each crash now offers an opportunity to learn and work smarter as we strive to save lives."

Initially, target customers for the system will be the companies supplying corporate vehicles, government bodies, schools, public transportation bodies, taxi companies and other businesses which must manage fleets of vehicles. The crash data could be marketed to insurers who cover corporate vehicles.

The project has already signed up one major customer: Minorplanet, which claims to be Europe's biggest player in vehicle management information. The company will be migrating its 8,000-plus customers and their 200,000 vehicles, 9,000 in Ireland, to the European Safety Data Vault.

The technology being pioneered could eventually make its way to the mass market, just as automobile location technology has done. "In the car tracker market, individuals can choose to install a location device in the case of theft," said analyst Rob Bamforth with Bloor Research. "In fact, owners may find that their insurance company will not insure the car without a tracker, or may demand a higher premium. The same model could come to apply to [black boxes]."

Bamforth said legislation could eventually require all new cars to contain crash-recorders, possibly linked into a Safety Data Vault-type system.

Many cars already have the equivalent of a black box, as the computer that controls a car's air bags is often equipped to record data such as engine and vehicle speed, brake status, throttle position and the driver's seat belt status. But the use of this data in insurance and law-enforcement cases is a legal grey area, since the data is not primarily intended for such purposes.

Bamforth said that privacy should not be an issue for the IBM-SIS system, since organisations opt to install the black boxes in exchange for benefits such as greater safety and lower insurance premiums. Individuals' privacy is also protected by Europe's stringent data protection legistlation, he pointed out.

If black boxes become widespread through new government requirements, it could make an impact on public safety, similar to the effect of speed cameras, he predicted. "If people know there is a black box accurately recording information for insurance purposes, it could have an effect on how people drive," he said. "Over time, there could be broader indirect benefits."

IBM is provding SIS with servers, storage, wireless infrastructure and database products for the European Safety Data Vault, as well as consulting, business-development and integration services.