Investigations into sudden acceleration involving Toyota vehicles are shedding new light on black boxes in cars. As with black boxes on planes, they can reveal a lot about driver behavior and the car's performance.
Most people aren't aware that their cars contain black boxes. But collecting electronic information that helps reveal exactly what happened inside a vehicle prior to a crash is becoming an increasingly important concern for law enforcement, insurance companies and traffic safety engineers.
About 60 percent of vehicles contain "event data recorders," or EDRs, which work more or less like black boxes on airplanes. They record information such as how fast the vehicle was going and how well the brakes and airbags worked — or didn't.
Black boxes in cars are now getting more attention, given the controversy surrounding sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
Safety advocates say they provide impartial information that is crucial to researchers studying ways to prevent future accidents, as well as manufacturers looking to improve performance. As with many such technologies, however, privacy concerns have been an issue.
There's No Uniformity
Black boxes in cars are not one physical box. Instead, data are collected by chips and sensors throughout the works of a vehicle. That information gets downloaded onto a hard disk. Typically, the disk will contain 5 to 6 seconds' worth of information prior to the crash.
"A lot of this started with the need for manufacturers to understand how airbags were performing," says Henry Jasny, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. "As the vehicles became more electronic and complex, the manufacturers, on their own, wanted to collect more data."
EDRs are not standard equipment. Carmakers may or may not include them, and there is no uniformity in terms of what type of information gets collected and how it can be accessed.
Toyota is bowing to pressure to make information from its EDRs more accessible. "There was only one device in the U.S. that could be used for downloading Toyota's data," Jasny says. "Now, there are hundreds, but it's still in very encrypted information that people need Toyota experts to read."
In 2006, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration put forward a rule calling for more uniform information collection. It's modeled primarily on the approach taken by General Motors, which began equipping many of its vehicles with a sophisticated EDR as early as 1999.
Under the NHTSA rule, manufacturers still won't have to offer EDRs, but if they do, as of the 2013 model year, they will all have to collect 15 specific types of data.
Jasny said the rule could have been tougher. He was disappointed by the amount of data collection required and by the fact that EDRs still will not be standard equipment. "Unless you have all the vehicles equipped, collecting the information from the 40,000 to 60,000 vehicles involved in fatal injuries every year is going to be impossible," he says.
The boon that EDRs provide to investigators is that the information is objective. Eyewitnesses can't tell whether the driver failed to put his foot down on the brake, or whether the brake system itself failed.
Even drivers themselves are often confused after a traumatic event such as a crash or fire.
"It's sometimes hard for us to recount exactly what happened," says Raul Arbelaez, director of technical services for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research organization funded by insurance companies.
"With some of these sudden-acceleration cases in the news lately, there may be cases where an accelerator pedal was pressed instead of the brake," Arbelaez says. "I guarantee you that some of those drivers genuinely believe they were stepping on the brake pedal."
Using EDRs To Bust Drivers
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which has both insurance companies and consumer groups represented on its board, is lobbying on Capitol Hill to make collection of EDR data mandatory after every serious crash. To protect privacy, Jasny says, the data should "be collected on the make and model of the vehicle but include nobody's name, so it can't be traced back."
EDR information belongs to the owner of the vehicle. That's why insurance companies and manufacturers will sometimes offer to buy what appears to be a complete wreck after a bad accident.
"It's not always a beneficent gesture," Jasny says.
States vary in terms of whether they allow EDR data to be subpoenaed in court. Last month, a Florida appellate court threw out a claim made by the defendant in a vehicular manslaughter case that he should have been able to block police from examining his vehicle's EDR data.
"There were two fatalities, and the data was greatly helpful in convicting him," Arbelaez says. "Privacy will always be a concern and, for a long time to come, will be used as an argument. On public roads, I believe that the argument should be that some of that data can be used." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.