Black Box Recorders Might Prove Useful In Toyota Cases

February 18, 2010
Consumers must be informed about black boxes

Consumers must be informed about black boxes

If you have a vehicle that's less than five years old, it likely has a black-box data recorder that—like it or not—is making a running log of what's going on.

That includes Toyotas—some going all the way back to 2001—and yes, those covered by the recalls. And depending on how the courts view the admission of that data, or whether it's complete enough, it could be the key to either proving or toppling the automaker's position against scores of lawsuits.

Toyota has called these Event Data Recorders (EDRs, often called black boxes) on its current vehicles "experimental," as tools to help improve the performance of safety features rather than to serve in accident reconstruction. The automaker told Ward's that it will however download data from its vehicles at the request of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

If that has you worrying, beside the point of Toyota's accelerators, that Big Brother is monitoring your driving, you can relax a little bit. Luckily these data points generally don't stretch very far back. For instance the chances are very low that they're going to see that you were inattentive and weaving a little more than usual, or that you were out in the parking lot doing donuts in the parking lot last Friday night.

How do you know for sure if your vehicle has one? Since some states require a disclosure from the automaker, it's likely that if your vehicle has one it's stated somewhere in the owner's manual. You might also check directly with the automaker, but since some insurance companies are giving out discounts for them your insurer might be more likely to know than your dealership.

In Toyotas, the EDR is located in the airbag control unit, Ward's says, and it's not as clear exactly what data Toyota could access from its units.

Many EDRs only record data leading up to the deployment of the frontal bags, so if a driver managed to turn off the ignition and roll to a stop, it might not be available; likewise, if a driver with a stuck accelerator maneuvered off the road and rolled over, without hitting another object, the frontal airbags might not deploy. So-called Non-Deployment Events currently can be seen in limited form with some units but not others.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration first asked for comments on EDRs, and how to standardize them, back in 2002; now the rules governing EDRs are finalized and will go into effect for 2013-model-year vehicles beginning in September 2012. At that time, there will also be a requirement that EDRs be accessible by vehicle owners in some way.

NHTSA has made some sample EDR reports available for public viewing. The data is very scientific in presentation and would likely be of some use in accident reconstruction, in many cases, but it doesn't

While the nation’s capital may be the riskiest city for driving, Sioux Falls in South Dakota rated as the safest

While the nation’s capital may be the riskiest city for driving, Sioux Falls in South Dakota rated as the safest

EDRs are typically capable of recording accelerator and brake positions, the gear selected, speed, and whether the driver was wearing a seatbelt, but they've typically been unable to record enough data to prove worthwhile for dissecting rear or side impacts, according to Ward's.

Engineers have told that more advanced black boxes being phased in are also be able to record lateral acceleration and forces, but this will again vary greatly by automaker or even by model until they're standardized.

Another thing they typically do not include is location-based information.

All said, will black-box data be admissible in court cases regarding unintended acceleration, and will Toyota allow access to it? On a case-by-case basis perhaps?


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