Reliability of Event Data Recorders Questioned

Toyota has recalled over 11 million vehicles worldwide to correct manufacturing defects in its vehicles that caused sudden acceleration. Numerous injuries and deaths have been blamed on the problem, resulting in hundreds of lawsuits against the company.

In April, the company was assessed a $16.4 million civil fine by the U.S. Transportation Department for not disclosing issues with pedals and unintended acceleration earlier. A CBS report notes that the company waited four months before alerting federal agencies about the problems.

Toyota Cites Operator Error

According to a press release issued by the company, Toyota began using black boxes or event data recorders (ERDs) in 2001. These devices collect certain pre- and post-crash data relating to speed and braking events. By the 2007 model year, EDRs were installed in all Toyota vehicles.

In July, Toyota released a statement indicating that driver error was to blame for many of the crashes, citing preliminary findings by the National Highway Safety Administration. According to a Reuters report, "pedal misapplication" (pushing the accelerator when intending to brake) was the main cause for some accidents.

The NHTSA's investigation reported that in 35 of 58 cases, the EDR indicated that the brake was never applied. This fact, according to Toyota, means that drivers simply pressed the wrong pedal. But Toyota itself has previously questioned the reliability of EDR data. The Washington Post cites a 2008 court case in which Toyota attempted to prevent the plaintiff from using EDR data to support his case, saying that the data retrieved from the recorder was "far from reliable."

Software Issue Puts EDR Data in Question

In early September, the company admitted that a software bug caused an issue with downloading and interpreting data contained in its black boxes. According to the Los Angeles Times, the company contends that the bug only affected readings for speed and did not impact data related to pedal or brake events.

The Times report also notes that until 2010, Toyota only had one data reader in the United States and that people outside the company were prohibited from using it, which slowed the investigation into the company. Toyota has since supplied officials in the U.S. and Canada with over 150 readers. And plans to release a commercial version for public use, as automakers GM and Chrysler currently do, are still being considered.

But critics question whether the past problems with the recorders, as well as Toyota's own statements about their use, make them inherently unreliable for investigative purposes. As Toyota stated in the 2008 case cited by The Washington Post, the "EDR was not intended to be used as a reconstruction tool in the field."

And so the case against Toyota continues as predicted.

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