U.S. safety bill could triple cost of auto 'black boxes'
Neil De Koker: “Any time you add complexity to the vehicle, you're adding a level of cost."
Safety system and electronics suppliers say that if the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration requires all vehicles to be equipped with black boxes similar to those in airplanes -- modules that can survive a severe crash, are waterproof and fireproof -- the cost of the units could triple or more, bringing them to around $4,000 or $5,000.
The automotive safety legislation contains a requirement that all new vehicles sold in the United States be equipped with event data recorders, or small computers that collect data about vehicle speed, deceleration and other factors that measure what a car is doing leading up to a crash. The regulation would take effect beginning in the 2015 model year.
The specifications that NHTSA will mandate for the so-called black boxes are unclear at this point.
Automakers will have to pay for the increased costs of the systems, which will likely be passed on to consumers.
“Any time you add complexity to the vehicle, you're adding a level of cost that will remove a certain number of people that are able to buy a new vehicle,” said Neil De Koker, CEO of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association.
At the same time, the requirements are likely to be a boost for suppliers of the technology.
“For the person that has that technology to make the event recorders, it's a great business opportunity,” he said.
Those companies are large, global Tier 1 suppliers, including TRW Automotive Holdings Corp., Delphi Automotive, Denso North America Inc., Robert Bosch and Continental Automotive Systems Inc.
Some estimates say more than half of the new cars and trucks on the market today are already equipped with event data recorders.
The device is essentially a small computer mounted in the passenger compartment that continuously records and deletes the most-recent few seconds of data about vehicle speed, acceleration and deceleration, whether seatbelts are fastened and other performance indicators.
Linked to airbags
Event data recorders are part of the airbag control unit, which uses performance data about a vehicle's state to determine when -- for example, if a vehicle decelerates violently -- to deploy the airbag.
The devices are designed to record about five seconds worth of data before a crash and a fraction of a second after a crash.
But regulators are likely to increase the recording duration before and after a crash and standardize the types of data and the format in which it's collected so investigators and researchers will have an easier time analyzing large sets of crash data.
The major issue is what NHTSA will do to the durability requirements, which supplier experts say could have a major impact.
“Within the current airbag control unit design, with some limited modifications, current units could be adapted to meet water resistance and mechanical crash requirements,” said Andy Whydell, senior manager of electronics product planning for TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. of suburban Detroit.
“But depending on the level of fire resistance that's needed, you may need to have a separate box, with its own unique design, something along the lines of the aircraft-style black box recorders. And if you've ever seen pictures of them on TV, you're looking at something probably the size of a shoebox,” Whydell said.
That would require new, fire-resistant packaging, adding to the cost and bulk of the unit, and potentially require design changes for where the unit sits in a vehicle.
Increasing the recording duration would also require more memory, adding to cost and size again. Extending the recording time after a crash, when many vehicles have their batteries automatically disabled to avoid possible fires, would also require an additional power source for the event data recorders, Whydell said.
Another engineering executive at a Tier 1 supplier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, echoed Whydell's comments about what major changes to event data recorders would mean.
“You're getting to something that's similar to aircraft black boxes, and those are extremely expensive,” the executive said.
Aircraft black boxes cost about $20,000. An automobile's black box could cost around $4,000 or more.
“It wouldn't be 20,000, but you could very easily wrap a few thousand in this thing,” the executive said. “For the guy who is out there buying a Chevy Cobalt, that's a big change to the price of a car.”
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the auto industry's primary Washington, D.C., lobbying organization for the Detroit 3, Toyota Motor Co., BMW Group, Volkswagen AG and other major automakers, supports the event data recorder requirement.
But in a May 6 statement, Alliance President Dave McCurdy said the group was concerned about potentially making vehicle black boxes like those found in airplanes.
TRW's Whydell also said that fireproofing the black boxes may be a step too far, noting that less than 1 percent of the more than five million car crashes in the United States each year result in a vehicle fire.
“The likelihood of really needing this extreme fireproof requirement is one that may not make financial sense for NHTSA,” Whydell said.
“Our expectation is that the existing systems that airbag control unit manufacturers are providing to their customers may have some modest upgrades to the hardware that's required to collect the standardized set of data.”
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