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Toyota appears to do an about-face on reliability of black boxes in its vehicles

The automaker previously said the devices' data could not be relied upon to determine the cause of accidents, but is now citing the readings to suggest that driver error is causing sudden acceleration.

July 28, 2010|By Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

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 at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C., group. "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 confidence 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 selected 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 2005, Toyota engineer Motoki Shibata argued in an affidavit filed in federal court in New Jersey that the downloaded data from a 2002 Corolla should not be entered into evidence. He stated that EDR data "is used by the manufacturer for quality purposes only" and that Toyota "does not rely on such crash data to reconstruct accidents in the field."

Two years later, Toyota technical analysis manager Mark Jakstis told a New Jersey state court that an EDR readout of a wrecked 2003 Echo was "unreliable." He noted numerous errors, including data indicating that the passenger wasn't wearing a seatbelt. Both plaintiffs and defendants agreed that the passenger was buckled in.

Toyota, Jakstis concluded, "cannot vouch for the reliability of any data downloaded," from the black box, court records show. The judge agreed to exclude the readout.

In late 2008, Toyota posted a Q&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&A page from its website. Spokesman Michels said a new page with an updated policy was in the works.

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.

One of the black boxes read by Toyota this spring came from a 2007 Tundra that crashed into a tree in Washington state three years ago, killing 29-year-old Christopher Eves.

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