If a Black Box in Apple’s Autonomous Cars Recorded Everything, Would You Care?

Autonomous car concept

One of the most important issues with the autonomous cars of the future is the partitioning of liability. To that end, new legislation proposed in Germany would require a data recorder to log when the car is under autonomous or driver control to aid in the assignment of responsibility. But such a data recorder has privacy considerations. And it might be hacked. Would such a system deter buyers? Could Apple overcome all this?

Autonomous car concept

The original story comes from Reuters. “Germany to require ‘black box’ in autonomous cars.” To quote:

Germany plans new legislation to require manufacturers of cars equipped with an autopilot function to install a black box to help determine responsibility in the event of an accident, transport ministry sources told Reuters on Monday.

No such legislation is being proposed in the U.S., likely to be one of the leading countries introducing this car technology starting in about 2020. Coincidentally, that’s when well-sourced rumors suggest that Apple will be releasing an electric car, the result of its secret Titan Project.

The Current Discussion & Research

Despite the fact that Germany seems to be getting out ahead of the liability problem, it’s not as if there hasn’t been heavy discussion in the U.S. on all segments of the technology, legal, infrastructure and customer-adoption. The best source of information I’ve seen comes from the Insurance Information Institute in its publication: “Self-Driving Cars and Insurance.”

Notable sections include these:

In January 2016 U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx released a new policy updating the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 2013 preliminary policy statement on autonomous vehicles. In March 2016 the agency also announced a 10-year $3.9 billion commitment to support the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation. According to a statement, NHTSA will propose guidance to industry on establishing principles of safe operation for fully autonomous vehicles in mid-2016.

In terms of the hurdles faced by the industry, two sections stand out.

A survey by IEEE, a technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for humanity, of more than 200 experts in the field of autonomous vehicles found that of six possible roadblocks to the mass adoption of driverless, these three were ranked as the biggest obstacles: legal liability, policymakers and consumer acceptance. Cost, infrastructure and technology were seen as less of a problem. When respondents were asked to specify the year in which some of today’s commonplace equipment will be removed from mass-produced cars, the majority said that rear view mirrors, horns and emergency brakes will be removed by 2030, and steering wheels and gas/brake pedals will follow by 2035.

Elaborating on the liability aspects is a report from the RAND Corporation.

A study of the benefits self-driving vehicles by the RAND Corporation, released in 2016, includes a discussion of liability insurance options. The study, “Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers,” explores the benefits, drawbacks and risks of autonomous vehicle use. According to the study, manufacturer liability is likely to increase, while personal liability is likely to decrease. Benefits include lower driver error that hopefully results in fewer vehicle crashes, better mobility to those otherwise impaired and drawbacks include an unquantified impact on occupations and economies based on public transit, crash repair. A named risk is inconsistent state regulations.

Discussion of the Issues

While both industry and the U.S. government are working on standards of operation and safety, the situation with the assignment of liability is still a bit sticky. Certainly, car insurance companies are looking to reduce payments for human-caused accidents as we move to higher and higher levels of car autonomy.

The SAE J3016 Standard
The SAE J3016 Standard

But there are other factors, such as the cost of replacing exotic electronic sensors when the driver takes control and causes an accident. Car makers will also seek liability insurance for any accident caused by their own systems.As for their own liability, car companies might try to make the customer pay for some of it with hidden insurance costs unless regulation intervenes. And can such a car even be stolen anymore? Owner biometric data could stop that for good.

Proving who (what) was at fault in an accident, with a black box, is the problem the German legislation aims to solve. However, there’s no indication (yet) that the U.S. Congress thinks this is a good idea.

Another outstanding issue is infrastructure. For a century, highways, road signs, and parking lots have been designed for human drivers. While sensors and algorithms are going to get a lot better, when sensors fail on older roads, is the driver responsible for putting the car itself (and by inference) themselves at risk? This happened recently when a Tesla driver was killed in autopilot mode. “…the car [failed to] notice[d] the big rig or the trailer ‘against a brightly lit sky.'”

Privacy Issues

A final issue is the handling of the black box’s log data. Even today, cars have elementary Event Data Recorders [EDR] computers that log certain performance and driver usage information. It’s still not firmly settled whether that data belongs to the driver or the car maker in a post-accident scenario. “Your Car is Spying on You—But Whom is it Spying For?

In order to accurately determine who was in charge of the vehicle at the time of the accident, the circumstances, and the proper maintenance and operation of the car, a lot more data will have to be collected. There could be issues with how the extensive log data, demonstrating which entity was at fault, is divulged to courts. Worse, unless the black box is very secure, hackers might be able to access a driver’s travel history.

These factors seem like things Apple would be especially good at handling in light of its heavy experience with handling iPhone privacy and security.

However, as always, the psychology of drivers, misunderstandings related to the actual operation of the technology, the agendas of the car companies, complex insurance issues, inconsistent state regulations, and customary lack of attention to customer protection by the U.S. Congress could lead to murky waters ahead.

If Apple does things very right, an autonomous car could succeed beyond Apple’s wildest expectations. On the other hand, the government could end up claiming that, for the sake of National Security, it needs perpetual access, without a warrant, to every car’s black box in the country. Would Congress prohibit or encourage such monitoring?

It would be Apple vs. FBI. Rinse. Repeat.

5 thoughts on “If a Black Box in Apple’s Autonomous Cars Recorded Everything, Would You Care?

  • f Apple does things very right, an autonomous car could succeed beyond Apple’s wildest expectations

    My belief is an Apple car, if produced, will debut with driver assistance technology but without autonomy. Apple is very aware of what sells and any autonomous technology will need to be phased in gradually or face stiff customer resistance and lower sales. Moreover, based on some of Apple’s current computers, they don’t have a problem selling or using older technology because it can be purchased for a very low price. Apple is profit-oriented and many decisions lead down that road.

  • Worse, unless the black box is very secure, hackers might be able to access a driver’s travel history.

    A black box would also need to be strong/secure enough to survive a collision. Cost implications could trickle down to the consumer. Professional drivers currently endure monitoring hardware posing as safety gear for a supervisory function.

  • What Apple car? You guys crack me up. Also, wasn’t the iCloud hacked? So much for Apple’s security. And if a car is autonomous who cares what data is being recorded if the driver is not a factor? Black boxes would be needed for machine learning. All autonomous cars will eventually talk to each other and record everything involved with safe travel being the ultimate goal. If that Renault truck in Nice even had a MINIMUM of rudimentary autonomous safety measures installed that are common today, no one would’ve been harmed by that defective.

  • Yes, but…
    We already have recording in our cars. This would just add some channels. Also as with self driving cars it would be valuable, to exonerate the autopilot as much as debug any system failures.

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