"Black box" recorders are usually associated with airplanes — more specifically, airplane disasters. Officially known as an event data recorder, the device collects information during a flight to allow aviation authorities to determine what happened during that flight or, more importantly, what went wrong during an in-air mishap.

Similar devices have silently ridden shotgun in many 4-wheeled vehicles for about two decades and serve a similar purpose; i.e., they record what was happening to the vehicle during a particular event.

Vehicle-based EDRs were designed to give automakers feedback on how and when airbags deployed, in order to improve the technology and make vehicles safer. EDR data were instrumental, for example, in development of the dual-stage or "smart" airbag, which deploys at one of two speeds, or not at all, depending on the severity of a collision. This helps reduce the number of airbag-related injuries to adults and children.

Automakers also use EDR data to track manufacturing defects and issue recalls. For instance, the data provided by these devices proved critical in the federal investigation into the unintended-acceleration controversy that has affected Toyota vehicles over the past few years.

All in all, black boxes have had a positive effect on automotive safety since they first hit the road. And it seems as though they are about to become mandatory on all new cars.

But not everyone is in favor of EDRs in cars. Some consumer and privacy advocates point out that they aren't only used to improve safety, but also help automakers cover their, well, you know what. "Automakers also use [the data] to fend off product liability claims such as airbag malfunctions and sudden unintended acceleration," says Tom Kowalick, chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and a noted EDR expert.

Conspiracy theorists even worry that EDRs can and will be used to track drivers' every movement — wherever, whenever. Imagine federal and state governments able to track where, when and how fast you are going 24/7, every day of the year. Scary, right?

Consequently, there is a lot of apprehension about mandating that every car have a black box. The recording and sharing of personal information has become a touchy topic in our increasingly connected world. To help you decide where you stand on the black-box debate, pro or con, we've separated fact from fiction so that you know what type of data an EDR collects — and when — and your rights concerning that data.

Bing: History of Black Boxes

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Fiction: EDRs are required on all cars

Not yet, at least. The federal government currently doesn't require automakers to install EDRs in vehicles. Each automaker decides whether to include one, and many do. But that could soon change with pending legislation. "There's a proposed Senate rule pending that would require EDRs in all vehicles," says Ron Medford, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "[The new law] would take out the option and say that all car manufacturers must install EDRs."

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Fact: Automakers have to declare the presence of an EDR

Since 2006, NHTSA has stipulated that automakers that include the device in a vehicle have to disclose to consumers that an EDR is on board. (The information is usually found in the owner's manual.) NHTSA also recently mandated that vehicles manufactured after Sept. 1, 2011, that include the devices must record data in a standardized format.

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Fiction: An EDR constantly records your driving habits

An automotive black box begins recording information only after it detects enough force to trigger it, such as in a collision or significant impact after a hard jolt. "The algorithm that sets off the capturing of EDR data can be triggered without deploying an airbag," says Todd Hutchison, an accident reconstruction expert and vice president of VCE Inc. in Nashville, Tenn. "It can be set off by, say, hitting a curb really hard." Otherwise, the device remains inactive.

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