Drivers navigating a lonely, open road may find the road to be open, but it may not be as lonely as they think.
Many of them have a silent passenger riding along – one that is small, often silver and notices everything.
It is an event data recorder (EDR), which is usually located somewhere beneath the passenger seat floorboard.
The number of cars equipped with these event data recorders has increased in recent years, but many consumers and car dealership employees haven't heard of them.
"There's not a lot of info out there. What info is out there is pretty poor," said Boyd Sliper, a Fort Collins Police Services community services officer.
Sliper, also an accident reconstructionist for the Fort Collins police Collision Reconstruction And Scene Handling (CRASH) team, said the EDRs' main purpose is to monitor sudden changes in acceleration, such as when a driver hits the brakes or crashes into something. The EDR recognizes this deceleration and begins recording the car's system settings immediately into the recorder's long-term memory, in addition to deploying the airbag if necessary.
"The reason that they're put in cars is as a safety device. It monitors all those systems simultaneously," Sliper said. "If something changes, they're made to deploy the airbag."
EDRs are small, roughly 3-by-3-inch boxes that are connected to a car's airbag system. Often compared to the "black boxes" located in airplane cockpits, EDRs monitor automobile acceleration, brake application, throttle use, seatbelt status and airbag deployment in the milliseconds before, during and after a car accident.
However, unlike airplane boxes, and contrary to popular belief, EDRs do not record conversations, how often people drive their cars or other more private information.
"Actually, the EDRs are not collecting data 99 percent of the time," said Gloria Bergquist, spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade association for automobile manufacturers.
The data recorders constantly record and erase car information in roughly five- to eight-second intervals.
"EDRs provide only a snapshot in time, not a life story, and they continually rewrite that life story," Bergquist said.
Despite estimates by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that about 30 million cars on the road are equipped with EDRs, many people do not know what an EDR is or what it does.
This could be because data is not often extracted from EDRs after an accident.
"The capability's there, but I don't think anybody's doing much with it.
They're not really utilized," said Rod Schmidt, an independent mechanic in Fort Collins.
Sliper said police only pull data from an EDR for "less than 1 percent" of the city's accidents.
"It was never designed as a law enforcement tool specifically. It's just that it is a useful tool for us to reconstruct what happened and fill in any blanks that we couldn't get through reconstruction," Sliper said.
The police only pull information from an EDR when they have permission from the car's owner or if they have a search warrant from a judge.
Marty Emge, the service manager for Dellenbach Motors, 3111 S. College Ave., agreed that it is rare for data to actually be pulled from a car's data recorder. He said he does not even have the ability to pull the data from a car – only the General Motors Corp. representatives can do that.
"I've had a couple allegations where a person said their car was defective and when GM came and pulled the data out it said something different," Emge said.
He told one story of a time when a young driver got into a snow accident and claimed to have been going about 30 miles per hour. The driver claimed the brakes stopped working and he crashed. After finding no fault with the brakes, investigators pulled data from the car's EDR that revealed the driver had been going about 65 mph in a 30 or 35 mph speed limit zone.
Emge said this incident is more the exception than it is the rule.
EDRs' recent emergence onto the market and limited use in car accident investigations is partly why the auto insurance industry is somewhat wary of the technology.
Although the data recorders could conceivably be used to more easily determine fault in accident insurance claims, Carole Walker, executive director for the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, said the EDR technology is too new to really affect the insurance industry.
"I think the industry supports having more accurate data and using technology as a tool to determine fault generally, but I think since it's still such a new technology … I think there's a lot of questions," she said.
She said the two biggest questions facing data recorder use in the insurance industry are privacy issues and the issue of whether EDRs can be used in courts to help decide insurance claims.
"It's sort of like a technological DNA in your car and any kind of data like that can be questioned," Walker said.
The privacy issue is one that many people are concerned about.
"I know there are lots of people who feel it's intrusive and don't want it," said Liz Neblett, spokesperson for the safety administration.
Bergquist said the automotive industry takes privacy concerns very seriously.
"The only issue is probably that as we move forward we need to balance safety and privacy concerns," she said. "We believe that new vehicle (owners) should know that these are in their vehicles."
Sliper said the EDRs were not designed for use against people in determining fault after accidents. Having an EDR in a car may work out negatively for people once in a while, but it may actually benefit them in other instances, he said.
"The biggest thing is I don't want people to get freaked out and say, 'Uncle Sam is watching us,' or 'Big Brother is watching us,'" Sliper said. "It's a tool that we have. Do we rely on it solely? Absolutely not."