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Is 'big brother' hiding under car hoods?

Detroit is putting black boxes in cars to enhance safety. Critics worryabout privacy.

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In addition to antilock brakes and a kickin' stereo, today's new cars might come equipped with a dramatic feature the owner isn't even aware of - a data recorder.

The only question is: Is that good or bad?

Capable of tracking everything from vehicle speed to whether the driver has buckled up, the recorders are the automotive equivalent of the airlines' little black box. Carmakers tout them as a valuable tool that will help create safer vehicles.

But privacy advocates say the recorders raise the specter of Big Brother under the hood. "The long-term effects of this technology are ... ominous," says Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.

So far, all new cars have relatively rudimentary verisions of the recorders: They're tied to airbags and monitor how the safety devices work and other basic information.

But General Motors Corp. is taking the lead in putting more-sophisticated recorders in many 1999 models that will track everything from speed to a driver's braking patterns.

Eventually, experts predict that virtually all cars will carry advanced recorders.

"We're excited about the opportunity" to understand accidents better, says Don Griffin, associate director of the National Association of Independent Insurers. The industry expects to be able to use the information to settle claims faster, with fewer lawyers, and thus perhaps give consumers better rates.

Automakers, too, are keen to collect the data. They will soon face regulations requiring "smart airbags" on cars. Thus they need to know when and how strongly the devices should inflate.

At present, for instance, engineers are uncertain when to trip an airbag if a small adult is in the passenger seat. Better data on real-world accidents would help clarify this.

The smarter airbags get, "the more important it will be to record more [accident] data," says Phil Haseltine, president of the American Coalition for Traffic Safety in Arlington, Va.

Crashing cars into barriers with dummies on board (the current state of data collection) doesn't capture all the variables involved in real-world crashes. "There's so much more variation in the real world than you can duplicate in the lab," says Mr. Haseltine.

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