EDR: Toyota’s Electronic Doubt Receptacle

Earlier this week, police in Auburn, New York concluded that a fatal crash involving a 2010 Camry that plowed through a red light was caused by the driver, who suffered a medical condition.

Law enforcement based this in part on the results of the Camry’s Event Data Recorder (EDR) – aka, “black box” – readout, which appeared to show that the driver Barbara Kraushaar never hit the brake in the five seconds before her Camry struck a Ford Taurus, and killed driver Colleen A. Trousdale.

A news report in Syracuse’s Post-Standard quoted Auburn Police Lt. Shawn Butler, thus:

“What that showed us is the five seconds prior to the crash, that her vehicle was steadily increasing in speed and that there was no application of brake at all. And the accelerator was in both the off and on position, fluctuating, in the last five seconds.”

Because of her condition (unspecified) police did not charge Krushaar in the crash. But did the EDR give an accurate account of the driver’s actions? Would Toyota swear to it in a court of law? We’re guessing not, since Toyota has always maintained that the data obtained by its EDRs is unreliable. (Unless it points to driver error.)

Last month, with great fanfare, Toyota announced that it would make 150 Event Data Recorder readout devices available, with some going to NHTSA and Transport Canada and was furiously training field techs on how to use them. Toyota also announced that it was “developing new policies and procedures for responding to direct customer requests for EDR readouts and data hand-off to help ensure a smoother, more informed process for all parties involved” and was “actively developing plans to transition to a commercially available EDR readout device and software package.”

"By increasing the number of Event Data Recorder readout devices and training more staff across the country, Toyota is better prepared to respond to customer concerns quickly and address their needs more effectively," said Steve St. Angelo, Toyota Chief Quality Officer for North America. "We have delivered on this pledge to our customers and to Congress as we continue working hard to set a new standard of customer care at Toyota."

Whew! We got tired just reading about it. Toyota was forced to get busy a few months ago, after admitting to the House Energy and Commerce Committee that Toyota owned the only readout tool in the entire US capable of reading the data from its Event Data Recorder.

It’s too bad that Toyota doesn’t think much about accuracy of the black box results. Toyota has staked out this position numerous times in the press and in litigation.

For example in response to questions by the LA Times on its EDRs, Toyota said:

“Given the fact that the readout tool is a prototype and has not been validated, it is Toyota’s policy not to use EDR data in its investigations. However, Toyota has used the readout tool under certain circumstances.”

In James McAlonan v. Toyota Motor Corporation, et al, Toyota argued that the EDR data retrieved from a 2003 Toyota Echo in November of 2007 should be excluded as evidence because of the lack of reliability of the data. In the affidavit of Toyota Design and Technical Analysis Manger Mark Kastis, he specifically points out that the readout is unreliable because there were errors and anomalies in the readout; that those errors have not been explained by controlled crash test results; repeatable laboratory test results; or extensive field experience; how were they resolved by specific corroboration from physical evidence. He also conceded that the readout tool has never been validated:

“The prototype readout tool used to perform the readout in this litigation had never before been used to read out data from a 2003 Echo EDR involved in a real world crash. The readout tool has not been validated as a reliable device to accurately convert the data contained in this EDR to the form presented in the readout report,” Kastis said.

Similarly, the general information section in Toyota’s SRS Event Data Recorder Operation Manual specifically states:

“The accuracy of the memory of Toyota’s Event Data Recorder (“EDR”) is still being validated, and the readout tool for the EDR is still in the prototype stage. Toyota cannot verify the complete reliability of such information, unless such data can be independently corroborated, e.g., through physical evidence, etc.”

According to publicly-available sources, Toyota has been installing airbag Event Data Recorders in its vehicles since the 2001 model year, and vehicle stability control EDRs since the 2000 model year, both focusing on frontal crashes.  In 2002, Toyota expanded capabilities to include rollover events. In 2004, it developed technology to incorporate side impact collisions.  However, according to a deposition of Toyota engineer Motoki Shibata, Toyota has actually been able to record and download vehicle data as far back as 1997.  In addition, Toyota’s Hybrid vehicles can report Operation History Data which records special operations performed by the driver and the number of times abnormal conditions that have been input into the Hybrid Vehicle (HV) control ECU.  The history recorded includes accelerator and brake application information. This data is retrieved using a Toyota tool called a Techstream. Unlike the EDR readout tool, this is available to the public for purchase.

The details of the quantity and quality of the Toyota EDR data have been shrouded in secrecy.  No one, other than Toyota, knows exactly what data is recorded, retrieved and how it is processed and analyzed to produce a report.

According to Toyota, the type of data recorded varies depending on which generation of EDR is in the vehicle. Examples of the data that can be recorded include engine speed, whether the brake pedal was applied or not, vehicle speed, to what extent the accelerator pedal was depressed, position of the transmission shift lever, whether the driver and front passenger wore seat belts or not, driver’s seat position, SRS air bag deployment data and SRS air bag system diagnostic data. What Toyota doesn’t disclose prior to the download, is which generation of EDR is installed on specific vehicle makes, models and years and what data is available on each version. The owner of the vehicle does not know what is being recorded and when the data is downloaded, nor do they have any way to determine if the data downloaded is complete and accurately translated.

Lest you think that we are picking on Toyota – other manufacturers have been less than honest about the capabilities of their EDRs in the past – and their EDRS have recorded inaccuracies – or at least large discrepancies between what the readout says and what the physical evidence shows.

In a study entitled, Evaluation of Event Data Recorders in Full Systems Crash Tests, the authors examined Ford and General Motors EDRs. They concluded:

“The majority of the EDRs examined in this study did not record the entire event. In one-third of the GM tests (10 of 30), 10 percent or more of the crash pulse duration was not recorded. In two of the four Ford tests, the last 100 ms of the crash pulse was not recorded. A data loss of this magnitude would prevent a crash investigator from using an EDR to even estimate the true delta-V of a vehicle.”

In a presentation, GM’s then Executive Director of Vehicle Safety, Robert C. Lange noted that when using EDR data, one must always account for and correlate data with physical information. In Mary Acker v. General Motors, the EDR recorded an air bag deployment but the air bags did not actually deploy. In Prudencia Sanchez v. General Motors, the EDR download indicated that the driver’s seat belt status was buckled in the non-deployment event and unbuckled in the deployment event that occurred immediately afterwards.

What is disturbing in Toyota’s case is how readily Toyota will use it to impeach the testimony of consumers and how law enforcement officials, who aren’t aware of the unreliability of Toyota EDR data and murkiness of its download process accept the results.

So, to review: Toyota’s EDR data is unreliable; the type of data recorded for each make and model is known only to Toyota; the readout tool has never been validated.

One might logically ask: if Toyota’s EDR is so useless, why make so many readout tools available? For that, you need the readout tool for Toyota press releases, developed by Safety Research & Strategies. Don’t worry: anyone can have one and no special training is required! Just substitute the words “public relations” anytime you see the word “quality” or the acronym “SMART,” as in the automakers new rapid response “SMART” teams.

Works pretty good.


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