A train ploughs into a car: people die. Was the driver asleep at the wheel? Was he struggling to get the engine to start? Was he fighting the steering, or stamping on the brake pedal? A black box in the car would reveal all - and so the IEEE has decided that cars will have such a black box.

So stand by for the new buzz-word: "motor vehicle event data recorders" or MVEDRs.

The real surprise is, probably, that an awful lot of vehicles on the road have a black box of MVEDR already. What the IEEE is trying to do, is standardise the format of information that is captured.

But there are other serious issues, such as "what power supply should it use?" and "how hot a fire should it withstand?" as well as "where did it go?" and "how many people were in it?"

The new black box standard comes out 29 November. It's IEEE 1616, which has been meeting as a working group for two years, trying to decide what such a monitoring device should record. But the announcement came out early, this week, probably to coincide with Munich show Electronica's big focus on automotive applications.

Electronica decided to focus on automotive at a time when the US industry is well under way with switching over to 42-volt power systems, and starting to worry about what electronics should be standard equipment. "The 'Automotive Innovation' user forum will address the significance of automotive electronics as a driving force for innovation and business in the industry," said the organisers, noting that semiconductors for automobiles have an average growth rate of more than 12 percent and a 17 percent share of the worldwide semiconductor market.

The black box will plug straight into this rapidly growing cyber-net in the car, including driver communications systems, active and passive safety systems as well as comfort.

"IEEE 1616 defines what data is to be captured in a vehicle's recorder. Included are the vehicle's speed, change in velocity, number of occupants, if seatbelts are used, geographic location, and direction of travel, as well as date and time. Such parameters could be helpful in investigating a crash or in just learning how a vehicle is operated," said the Institute this week.

Car makers won't be expected - by the IEEE at least - to include any particular information. That, says the Institute, will be left to the builders of black boxes - but in point of fact, once legislators discover that there is a standard, it's more likely to be governments that decide what to record.

What the IEEE 1616 standard will provide, however, is a dictionary. It will define how the data is accessed, how formatted, and how retrieved.

Tom Kowalick, chairman of the IEEE 1616 Working Group, says the standard is not aimed purely at North American car makers. "It will help manufacturers around the world develop tamper and crash-proof black boxes for autos, trucks, ambulances, and other vehicles," he said.

His working group is made up of about 140 experts from the public and private sectors, from a wide variety of organisations, including US government bodies, such as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), along with the Alliance of International Automobile Manufacturers and a group of 13 North American auto makers.

William Leventon at the Institute reports NHTSA figures showing that as from two years ago, "all passenger cars beginning with the 2002 model year, including vans, SUVs, and lightweight vehicles, have some recording capacity." Black boxes were installed in every 2004-model General Motors car and in several Ford models, although, he says, boxes in cars of different makers have not been recording the same events.

This is what the IEEE is addressing, says Kowalick. "Major global organisations - such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and the European Union - are pushing for standard MVEDR technology."

In the United States, he estimates that about 40 million motor vehicles already use some type of event-recording equipment that collects not only acceleration and deceleration speed, but also braking and steering data.

The standard will be published and available for purchase on 29 Nov. For more information on the IEEE 1616 Working Group, visit http://grouper.ieee.org/groups/1616/home.htm.