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Imagine you're in your car driving to the grocery store. You're accelerating away from a stop sign when suddenly -- BANG! -- you're hit from behind by a speeding car that never even slowed down. Badly shaken, you stumble out. The police arrive on the scene just minutes after the crash. Plus, they already seem know that you stopped, and the other guy -- who's being arrested -- didn't.
And moments later, your cell phone starts ringing. It's your insurance agent, who also has accident details and is calling to reassure you that it looks like a quick decision. How do the police and your insurer know what happened? Because a "black box" in each of the cars told them so, the instant it happened.
This system is closer to reality than you may think. It's being built today in Ireland and is expected to spread across Europe over the next few years before taking root in the U.S. Insurance companies like the idea because computer-generated data about the crash will help prevent fraudulent claims and cut insurance costs. Emergency responders will be aided, too, thanks to faster, more detailed information about the exact location and scope of an accident.
NATIONAL NETWORK. Automakers recognize that they could identify dangerous defects by mining accident data for telltale signs of component failure. The auto data recorder might even prevent another Ford-Firestone debacle. And it's a relatively simple scheme -- indeed, all the necessary technologies already exist -- with tantalizing promise.
On Nov. 6, Ireland's Transportation Minister announced an agreement to outfit the nation's vehicles with black-box data recorders and link them to an emergency notification system. Under the agreement, Safety Intelligence Systems (SIS), a private New York-based company, will partner with IBM (IBM
) as its exclusive information-technology provider, to supply the boxes and build a comprehensive crash-data network.
The system "has the potential to make a significant contribution to this country's determined efforts to reduce deaths and injuries," said Transport Minister Séamus Brennan in a prepared statement. The deal is part of a broader European Union effort to develop "telematics" -- or in-vehicle data systems -- solutions to improve road safety.
EASY TO INSTALL. At the center of Ireland's plan is a rather modest black box, packed with sensors that can tell when an accident has happened. A scaled-down cousin of airplane flight recorders, the box is about the size of two decks of playing cards, side-by-side, and is installed unobtrusively in the car's cabin or under the hood. The units, which will go on sale by mid-2004, are being built by Toronto's Celestica (CLS
) and will retail for around $300. Once sales volumes rise, says Pierre-Henri Gabriel, IBM's director of Automotive Telematics Solutions in Europe, the price could fall by half.
Except for a power connection, the black box isn't attached to any of the car's systems. This makes it easy to install, and more foolproof in the case of an accident, says Gabriel. Inside, the box has enough memory to store the last 10 or 20 seconds of driving data. A global-positioning-system device tracks vehicle location and can interpolate speed, acceleration, and deceleration by calculating changes in location over time.
Miniaturized gyroscopic sensors similar to those now used to trigger airbagsetect the sudden sharp shocks that indicate an accident. The unit's brain is a microprocessor that decides when an accident has happened and then sends a distress signal over a standard cellular link.LEGAL LIMITATIONS. The box can send more than just a cry for help. Its signal can be packed with helpful data, such as the vehicle's exact longitude and latitude. So if the car was hit on the highway and skidded into oncoming traffic, emergency responders can adjust in advance. Or it can relay an estimate of the crash's intensity, based on the computer's measurement of how fast the car decelerated or changed direction, so responders will know in advance if an ambulance may be necessary.
Who gets to see this data is dictated by national law. In Ireland's case, SISis building the communication links and software systems that route it only to those who have legal permission to know such private details as the driver's name, address, and driving record. As a rule of thumb, says SIS President Dr. Ricardo Martinez, a trauma surgeon who got into accident safety because of what he saw in emergency rooms, only responders and insurance companies will get that info. Crash data will be collected and analyzed by an SIS subsidiary, the European Safety Data Vault, which may someday house the data for the entire EU.
Once the data is "sanitized" of all personal information, SIS hopes to build a business analyzing it for a variety of trends. Though neither IBM nor SIS would reveal details on the size of their deal, they'll earn revenue from companies that pay a fee to study the data, such as insurance groups, public-transportation authorities, vehicle makers, and large fleet operators.
"THE DARK AGES." Indeed, the SIS-IBM joint venture has already announced its first major customer. Starting next year, Britian's Minorplanet Systems, one of Europe's largest fleet managers, will begin to offer the black boxes and related crash data along with its existing suite of vehicle management-information services. The company now manages nearly 200,000 vehicles worldwide, including some 6,000 in Ireland.
Observers in the U.S. are closely monitoring the development of Europes's crash data telematics program. A trove of such consistent crash data will spark big improvements in road safety in both places, says SIS's Martinez, who headed the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Clinton Administration. Existing road-safety data is largely based on subjective judgments and inconsistent reporting. "When I oversaw the rollout of airbags in the U.S.," he says, "I was stunned by how bad the crash data was. We're still really in the dark ages in that respect."
The data repository will allow safety authorities to look for ways to make better judgments. By looking at geographical trends, for example, researchers might discover that a certain off-ramp is prone to crashes and suggest rebuilding it. Carmakers are also intrigued. By examining a large number of crashes, an abnormally high incident of those involving a given model could point to quality problems. "Every crash is a lost opportunity to improve safety and save lives," says Martinez.
EURO AGGRESSIVENESS. These safety gains will come to Ireland, and Europe, before the U.S. for a couple of reasons. For one, the EU's more standardized cellular networks make it easier to develop a single wireless standard for the black boxes. Another factor is that the EU is more aggressive about setting broad goals for road-safety improvements than the U.S., says Martinez. Ireland's telematics program is one part of broader EU agenda to halve current road fatalities, to 20,000, by 2010, and to cut the EU's annual crash costs of some $200 billion.
By mandating that drivers use the boxes, Ireland seems to have snuffed out privacy concerns that have slowed the voluntary adaptation of the technology elsewhere, says Thilo Koslowski, vice-president and lead automotive analyst at Gartner Inc. In a U.S. poll, Gartner found that 57% of drivers said they would be happy to install a black box if it cut their insurance costs. But only 15% said they had no worries about the ability of authorities to locate their car via the GPS unit. "Earning the drivers' trust is the key to making [telematics] work," says Koslowski.
Still, the Irish announcement is a sign that crash-data telematics is poised to take off. Even in New York City, American Transit Insurance, which covers four of every five of the city' taxis and limos, is working with IBM and SIS to rollout a pilot telematics program in 2004 that would cut insurance costs by delivering more reliable crash data and improve taxi safety.
That's something drivers -- and their passengers -- can appreciate whether they're in New York or in Dublin. By Adam Aston in New York