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Today’s cars are filled with computers, some of which have data-gathering ability. (iStockphoto)
Today’s cars are filled with computers, some of which have data-gathering ability. (iStockphoto)

You & Your Car

Is my car spying on me? Add to ...

I read the other day about police using data from a car’s “recorder” to assist in their investigation into a traffic death. I didn’t know my car was spying on me. What do cars know about my driving and who has access to that information? – Kirsty

Today’s cars are filled with computers, some of which have data-gathering ability.

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We all know about services that allow the car’s “computer” to call for help following a crash. Navigation systems need to know where the vehicle is at every moment in time but this is a one-way information stream; that location is not sent back.

On top of these services are those that gather information about your driving habits. These use that information to adjust everything from the way the transmission shifts to the way the throttle responds to input. They track your driving style and make adjustments accordingly.

But the ones that save your life, those related to airbags, include a device called an Event Data Recorder (EDR) – which communicates with numerous sensors throughout the vehicle for signs of a crash. The EDR stores a few seconds of this information, refreshing it constantly. If there is a crash, these few seconds worth of data are permanently saved.

What data is collected depends on the manufacturer but generally includes information about the force of the impact (necessary to determine if airbags should be deployed or not), speed, the position of the throttle and brake pedals, the angle of the steering wheel and information from the antilock brake and electronic stability control systems. That information is available through the OBD-II port (On-Board Diagnostic) port.

EDRs have been installed in cars for about 20 years now; by 2013, they will be mandatory on all cars sold in the United States (and consequently you’ll find them in cars sold here as well).

The intent is to assist in traffic crash analysis. The information has also been used by law enforcement officials and others in court. The EDR information has also been used during investigations into claims of unintended acceleration. It proved the drivers were not applying the brakes as claimed, but were in fact pushing on the throttle pedal.

The real villain, if you consider it thus, is your cellphone, or at least the connection to it through telematics systems like OnStar and others. These two-way systems can track where you are and how fast you are going.

We have all seen the ads or heard the stories of the remote call centre being able to remotely disable a stolen vehicle. These services require the driver to give permission to do so, usually by signing a contract with the provider. There have been instances of abuse and companies have had their knuckles rapped.

The other side of the coin is that several large insurance companies are offering discounts to people willing to prove they are safe drivers by having a special EDR plugged into their vehicle. Generally speaking, unless you have signed an agreement with a telematics provider, recorded information can only be used if it is obtained through a court order.

Transmission cooler

My mechanic told me I should have a transmission cooler installed, that the one included in my car didn’t provide sufficient protection. I regularly tow a light utility trailer with a dirt bike or lawn mower aboard. Do I need a second cooler or is he trying to sell me a bill of goods? – Bill

He is probably right. You don’t say what vehicle you are driving or where you are driving. The transmission cooler contained in the radiator is meant for normal use only. That would include the recommended tow rating.

But if you are anywhere near or above that rating at any time or live and drive in hilly country, extra protection would probably be a good idea. Automatic transmissions are expensive to repair or replace and if the transmission fluid shows signs of overheating, the manufacturer could void any warranty claim.


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