Toy­ota changes tune on black boxes, cites data to show driv­ers at fault

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS & PERSONAL FINANCE - By Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabe­dian

LOS AN­GE­LES — Toy­ota Mo­tor Corp. has ar­gued for years that the elec­tronic black boxes in its ve­hi­cles used un­proven technology that could not be re­lied upon to de­ter­mine the cause of ac­ci­dents.

Now, fac­ing con­tin­ued claims that its ve­hi­cles are de­fec­tive, Toy­ota ap­pears to have done an about-face.

The Ja­panese au­tomaker has been cit­ing data from black boxes in Toy­ota and Lexus ve­hi­cles to sug­gest that driver er­ror, rather than me­chan­i­cal or elec­tronic de­fects, is caus­ing sud­den ac­cel­er­a­tion.

In court cases, reg­u­la­tory fil­ings and deal­ings with cus­tomers, Toy­ota has for years branded the de­vices — called event data recorders, or EDRs — as un­re­li­able. It has also said the tools used to read the re­ports are pro­to­types.

“It sounds du­plic­i­tous when all along Toy­ota has been say­ing this is un­re­li­able, and now they are us­ing it as their de­fense and they are not re­leas­ing the data to the pub­lic,” said Henry Jas­ney, se­nior coun­sel for Washington-based Ad­vo­cates for High­way and Auto Safety. “Un­til there is full dis­clo­sure of all the in­for­ma­tion in all the ac­ci­dents, we can’t be sure what the data is telling us.”

The de­vices, in­tro­duced about a decade ago, record data such as speed, brak­ing and gas pedal po­si­tion, and are part of the elec­tron­ics that con­trol airbags.

Toy­ota spokesman Mike Michels said the au­tomaker’s po­si­tion had evolved as EDRs im­proved over time.

“The technology in EDRs has been de­vel­op­ing over many years,” Michels said. “I’d say if we were asked to­day whether we had confi-

dence in them, we’d have a dif­fer­ent an­swer.”

This spring, amid widen­ing con­cerns about sud­den ac­cel­er­a­tion, Toy­ota sent teams of tech­ni­cians around the U.S. to in­ves­ti­gate mo­torist claims. It has re­viewed more than 2,000 in­ci­dents to date, ex­tract­ing data from black boxes when there was a wreck.

This month, Toy­ota said EDR data in a se­lect group of those crashes — it de­clined to re­veal how many — showed that driv­ers had mis­tak­enly stepped on the gas even though they claimed they had hit the brake.

“We’re not im­ply­ing that ev­ery­thing is driver er­ror,” Michels said, not­ing that floor mat in­ter­fer­ence and stick­ing ped­als can also cause sud­den ac­cel­er­a­tion. “But in in­stances where they re­ported hav­ing their foot on the brake pedal, there is very clear ev­i­dence that it is pedal mis­ap­pli­ca­tion.”

Lawyers who have bat­tled Toy­ota in court cases say the com­pany is con­tra­dict­ing it­self.

“Some­times they’ve claimed it’s un­re­li­able, other times they say they can’t even ac­cess the data, and now they’re hold­ing it up as proof that they’re in­no­cent,” said Steve Van Gaas­beck, a Texas at­tor­ney who has been stymied by Toy­ota in sev­eral at­tempts to get EDR data ad­mit­ted in tri­als. “They want it both ways.”

In late 2008, Toy­ota posted a Q-and-A on black boxes on its web­site not­ing that its read­out tool was not sci­en­tif­i­cally val­i­dated and that the com­pany “does not have con­fi­dence that the read­out re­ports it gen­er­ates are ac­cu­rate.” Be­cause of that, and the fact that the au­tomaker had only one such tool in the U.S., the site said, “Toy­ota will not honor EDR read­out re­quests from pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als or their attorneys.”

This spring, how­ever, the au­tomaker an­nounced that it was de­ploy­ing 150 EDR read­ers in the U.S. and Canada, giv­ing some to safety reg­u­la­tors and us­ing the rest to con­duct field in­spec­tions of sud­den-ac­cel­er­a­tion com­plaints.

Toy­ota has also re­moved the Q-and-A page from its web­site.

In a March court de­po­si­tion, Toy­ota tech­ni­cal anal­y­sis man­ager Robert Lan­dis said that in the wake of con­gres­sional hear­ings ex­am­in­ing sud­den ac­cel­er­a­tion, the com­pany had changed its pol­icy and would down­load EDR data on request.

“We’re try­ing to show that in these ve­hi­cles that there is at times pedal mis­ap­pli­ca­tion,” Lan­dis said.

Un­like black boxes on air­planes, EDRs are not crash-proof. The unit in the Lexus ES that crashed near San Diego last Au­gust, killing four peo­ple in­clud­ing an off-duty Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol of­fi­cer, was so dam­aged by fire that it could not be read.

In cases where there is no ac­ci­dent, which rep­re­sent the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of sud­den-ac­cel­er­a­tion com­plaints, EDRs don’t usu­ally record at all. They also might not be tam­per-proof — a num­ber of In­ter­net re­tail­ers sell prod­ucts de­signed to wipe black-box me­mory.

The Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion, us­ing 10 read­ers pro­vided by Toy­ota this spring, has been down­load­ing EDRs on its own. The reg­u­la­tor hasn’t said how many cars it has re­viewed, and a spokes­woman said the reg­u­la­tor has drawn no con­clu­sions.

Nei­ther the safety agency nor Toy­ota has re­leased spe­cific data from black-box anal­y­sis.

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