TECH
08/28/2013 07:33 am ET Updated Aug 28, 2013

Google Self-Driving Cars Should Record Driver Moves Despite Privacy Fears, U.S. Official Says

SAN DIEGO -- Top U.S. safety official Deborah Hersman wants to see Google’s self-driving cars do more than switch lanes and brake for red lights. She said she also hopes the vehicles record what they do.

Before Google’s self-driving cars are admitted en masse onto the nation’s roads, the vehicles should not only be safe, but be equipped with mandatory data recorders that would log any crash or mishap, said Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

“When you have a driverless car, you have to demonstrate on the front end that you have the data that shows it’s safe. But we would also say, you need to make sure you have good data recording capabilities, so when there is an event, you can understand what happened,” Hersman said in an interview at the Governors Highway Safety Association’s annual meeting. “There’s got to be good data demonstrated and good data captured.”

Though such black boxes have been mandatory on aircraft for years, privacy advocates and drivers have expressed fears that adding electronic recording devices to personal cars would violate individual privacy by monitoring everything from drivers’ whereabouts to seat belt use. Most new cars already record such data, which can be shared with third parties, including insurance companies and law enforcement.

During her tenure as chairman of the NTSB, Hersman has repeatedly seen the benefits of collecting more data, rather than less, in crashes. The board investigates significant accidents on roads, rails, water and in the skies. Having a digital trail of a driverless car’s final moments would be a major boon for investigators in reconstructing what goes awry.

With self-driving cars, “data capture is going to help you understand if there is a vehicle problem, or if it’s a human factors issue,” Hersman explained. “There’s very little we can do to understand what happened or didn’t happen if there’s no survivor.”

Google has indicated that its driverless cars currently log information on their performance, including speed, location and obstacles detected by sensors. The data is used to refine and monitor the technology.

Already, most new passenger vehicles have recording capabilities of some kind, with regulators pushing for more widespread use. Ninety-six percent of passenger cars and light-duty vehicles from 2013 model year have electronic data recorders, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Last December, the agency proposed making those black boxes mandatory in all new vehicles in order to collect data on the seconds before a crash. NHTSA’s proposal sought to capture data on the driver’s speed, braking, seat belt usage, and air bags, among other information.

Drivers aren’t convinced they want their cars gathering data on where they go or how they get there.

Despite the improvements to safety and fuel efficiency that self-driving cars promise, many argue the privacy risks posed by potential data collection should be weighed against the benefits of the autonomous cars. A poll released in June by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers found that around three-quarters of respondents feared driverless car-manufacturers would use their vehicles' software to record personal data, while 70 percent had concerns their data would be accessible by the government.

Some worry more about what the self-driving cars might pick up about others on the road. When Google pushed for permission to test its autonomous vehicle technology on California roads in 2012, the Consumer Watchdog group, an advocacy organization, petitioned the state’s regulators to “ban all data collection by autonomous cars.”

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