A great deal has been written by the national media over the past few weeks about Toyota’s mounting safety problems. As you may know, there have been several mentions of black box issues relating to Toyota. I have found that few people really understand what the black box is and, even if they do know about it, most don’t understand exactly how such a creature works. For this reason, I asked Mike Andrews, a lawyer who handles Product Liability cases in our firm, to write on this subject for this issue.
Automotive Black Boxes
By now most everyone is aware that many passenger cars sold in the United States today are equipped with “black boxes” or Event Data Recorders (EDR) designed to monitor and capture data in a car crash. Originally black boxes grew out of the computer systems that monitored and deployed airbags. When the computer “sensed” a crash, it would send signals to deploy the airbags and the crash data was retained in the black box computer. As vehicles grew more and more computerized, more data was available to be monitored. For instance, antilock brake computers, anti-sway or traction control systems, frontal and side impact airbags, seatbelts, brake and throttle (accelerator) computers, seat position controllers and other computer-controlled devices all became potential sources for black box data. And certainly by now, in the year 2010, the recorders are standardized and the information recorded is uniform and trustworthy…..right? Unfortunately not.
Interpreting black box data is complicated and requires a complete understanding of the crash to get the whole picture. To begin with, not every carmaker installed the same level of data recording at the same time. This means that two identical year model cars from different carmakers may not provide the same data in a crash. Complicating things further, two identical year model cars from the same carmaker may not either. Because the level of features offered in base models versus luxury models varies greatly, different data is available. For example, a base level car may be equipped with frontal airbags only and its black box is designed to monitor forces involved with frontal crashes to decide when to deploy the airbags. However, a more expensive model may be equipped with side impact airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners. As a result, the black box in the luxury car may record side impact forces which were simply not monitored in the base vehicle. Consumers should not be forced with a decision between price and safety, but sadly that is the reality when choosing between the levels of features in many new cars.
In addition to the problems associated with varying years and models and levels of data, some black boxes are blacker than others. Partly as a result of lawsuits involving product liability claims, data from Ford and GM black boxes has been available for several years. Special computer equipment is required to download and interpret the data, but it can be done and is regularly used in product liability cases. Additionally, GM remotely gathers crash data every day through its OnStar systems and uses that information to assist in notifying rescue personnel – when an airbag is triggered in an OnStar-equipped vehicle — GM receives data regarding the crash conditions and stores that information about the crash. But the public is now learning what product liability lawyers have been facing for several years: information from Toyota black boxes is sketchy at best. In the recent rash of runaway Toyota vehicles, the news media has begun reporting that Toyota black boxes sometimes do not tell the whole story. Toyota has changed its position several times on just what data is actually being recorded and until recently there was only one computer in the United States that could download Toyota black box data. Toyota has generally fought to keep black box data out of the courtroom in trials against it unless that data was helpful to its own case.
The bottom line is that black boxes can and do provide a wealth of data from a crash, but real expertise is required to interpret that data and determine if it is complete and reliable. Some automakers have provided much more information than others. Still others, like Toyota, continue to play hide-the-ball with crash data while it desperately attempts to explain away the current acceleration and braking problems. There are several bills before Congress which seek to standardize automotive black boxes and the data they record. As vehicles continue to become more and more computer-driven this is an issue which will continue to gain importance. Safe and reliable operation of our vehicles is a reasonable expectation of consumers, and access to the reliable crash data when something goes wrong is an equally reasonable expectation.
April 30, 2010
I appreciate very much Mike writing this piece. Hopefully, it will help explain black boxes for our readers. If you need more information, you can contact Mike Andrews at 800-898-2304 or by email at Mike.Andrews@beasleyallen.com.
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