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The technology of traveling

July 10, 2004

JERRY LANE

Black boxes have been around for years. Every time we hear a

television reporter describing a plane crash, we hear some reference

about the FAA waiting for the retrieval of the black box so that they

can determine the cause of the accident. That piece of equipment

gives the inspectors information about the way the plane was

functioning (or malfunctioning) just before it came down.

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Trains, buses, trucks and street cars have had recording devices

routinely installed for many years. They are standard equipment on

school buses because the cargo they carry is so special and safe

delivery is critical. Speedographs and tachographs have given a

minute-by-minute record of a bus or truck's operation from the time

the new chart was inserted and the lid was closed until the lid was

opened and the chart was removed. Small knife cuts in the chart made

by the lid whenever it is closed tell the time the chart was inserted

and removed. A needle moves over the chart during the vehicle's

operation to tell exactly how the driver was driving: speed, braking,

stops, starts idling time, etc. If you have seen the seismograph

charts on television after an earthquake, you have some idea of the

way these records are created.

With our space-age technology, truck and train companies can know

where any given vehicle is at any given time. They can determine with

a keystroke the load, speed and fuel usage and anything else that

will make their operations more efficient.

Truck rental companies are very excited about these new

developments. Over the years they have been defrauded of millions of

dollars by renters who have disconnected the odometer cables so they

could drive hundreds of miles without incurring mileage costs. They

would reconnect them before they returned the vehicle and pay for

maybe a hundred miles. With the new vehicle computers, the rental

company knows exactly how far and how fast it has gone. I imagine

they have gotten more than a few surprises with the new system -- and

surprised some dishonest renters, too.

When I had some problems with my car last week, the mechanic

hooked my car into his computer to diagnose the problem. I watched as

the printed confirmation of what I had described to him was delivered

into his hands. He was able to see that I had proper tire pressure in

all four tires, drove at normal freeway speeds until the tire warning

light came on. At that point, I slowed down and then stopped and,

with the engine still running, made a visual inspection to see that

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