A Brief History of Event Data Recorders - In Trains, Planes, Vessels & Cars


Train black boxes, now known as On-Train Monitoring Recorders (OTMR), have the oldest  history. The first type of OTMR was produced by Hasler® with patent #3950 given in September of 1891. This device permitted the registration of speed, time, and the path traveled by the locomotive[1]. The Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) "Final Rule 49 CFR Part 229," revised June 30, 2005, requires that event recorders be fitted to the leading locomotives of all freight, passenger, and commuter rail locomotives operating above 30 MPH on the U.S. rail network[2].


The aviation industry led the next wave of event recorder technology. Flight Data Recorders (FDR) were first introduced in 1939. Two French inventors developed a device that automatically recorded several flight parameters on slowly moving photographic film that was exposed to a thin beam of light bent by moving mirrors. Due to the fact that photographic film must be contained in a light proof device, some suggest this helped coin the term, “Black Box.” Regardless of when or why this term came into use, it is accepted around the world as a catastrophic event recorder. The next innovation came in 1953 when an Australian aviation engineer, David Warren, built the first FDR that also recorded the conversation of the cockpit crew[3]. By the mid-1960s, FDRs and Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVR) were mandatory for commercial airplanes in most industrialized countries[4].

Ocean Voyage

Voyage Data Recorders (VDRs) seem to be the slowest progressing type of event recorders. The Safety of Navigation of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (1974) (SOLAS), mandated these types of recorders on larger maritime vessels in 2002. These event recorders include audio and sometimes video from the bridge[5].


Within the decade that event recorders were mandated on commercial planes, car black boxes or Event Data Recorders (EDR) were first introduced. In 1974, GM started placing black boxes on vehicles that included airbags for the research and development of these new, in-vehicle safety devices[6]. In 1997, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory issued recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to, "pursue crash information gathering using EDRs," and to, "study the feasibility of installing and obtaining crash data for safety analyses from crash recorders on vehicles," respectively. NHTSA followed these recommendations in 1998 by creating a working group for research. In 1999, the NTSB gave additional safety recommendations regarding EDRs, and in 2000 NHTSA sponsored a second working group looking into EDRs specifically associated with trucks, school buses, and motor coaches[7].

In 2000, the products to collect black box crash data were made commercially available, and currently some crash data can be collected from 1994 year model vehicles[8].

At this time, there are no federal regulations that require automobiles in the U.S. to have EDRs. Although the topic was discussed, the consensus was that most manufactures include these devices voluntarily[9]. The current regulations enforced in 2013, require specifics regarding data collection, elements, capture, and crash survivability [10].


Resource Links:

[1] http://www.haslerrail.com/en/history

[2] http://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/1026545

[3] http://www.l-3ar.com/Draft_0612/html/AU-FAQ-History.php

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/magazine/who-made-that-black-box.html

[5] http://www.imo.org/en/ourwork/safety/navigation/pages/vdr.aspx

[6] Event Data Recorders: A Decade of Innovation, SAE-PT139, ISBN-978-0-7680-2066-3, Pg.11

[7] https://www.nhtsa.gov/research-data/event-data-recorder#overview

[8] http://www.modot.org/tsc/2009documents/VETRONIX.pdf

[9] https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-12-13/pdf/2012-30082.pdf

[10] https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CFR-2011-title49-vol6/pdf/CFR-2011-title49-vol6-part563.pdf


David AtkinsonComment