No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota, Part II

After the Wall Street Journal plastered the front page a few weeks ago claiming NHTSA had “black box” (aka Event Data Recorder or EDR) data to support that driver error, not electronics, was the cause of the unintended acceleration issues in Toyotas, the headline is back yet again following a NHTSA Congressional briefing yesterday.

The WSJ in a subsequent story identified George Person, recently retired head of the recall division at NHTSA, as the source.  (see No Black Box Exoneration for Toyota and Lawsuits Fill in Outline of Toyota Sudden Acceleration Cover-Up)

Person’s leak appears to have prompted the briefing and, based on the briefing memo, Person accurately described the findings.  But what is missing from the WSJ – and most other reports about the data – is context.

(And while we’re on the topic of Person, we failed to mention that we do appreciate Mr. Person’s concern about government transparency – Person told the WSJ “When I asked why it hadn’t been published, I was told that the secretary’s office didn’t want to release it.”  But he lost us when he claimed “The agency has for too long ignored what I believe is the root cause of the unintended acceleration cases … It’s driver error.  It’s pedal misapplication and that what this data shows.”  Sorry George, but, we still hold fast that your statement tells more about your bias than it does the facts.)

Let’s start with the data, what is it and what has NHTSA disclosed about it:

NHTSA claims it conducted 58 field inspections and the vehicles it selected for inspection were crashes in which:

“There was an allegation of unintended acceleration or the possibility of unintended acceleration based on preliminary incident information; the vehicle was still available with the EDR intact; the vehicle contained an EDR with pre-crash data; and the owner of the vehicle was willing to allow NHTSA to read the EDR.  It is also important to note that most Toyota models manufactured before 2007 were not equipped with EDRs capable of pre-crash data.”

NHTSA noted that it gleaned the following breakdown from the data in the 58 cases:

35 showed no brake application

14 involved partial braking

9 involved braking late in the crash

3 involved early braking

2 involved mid-event braking

1 event was said to have involved pedal entrapment

1 event showed both brake and accelerator application

1 case the EDR contained information related to a separate incident

1 case NHTSA is still working to resolve inconclusive data from the EDR

5 cases resulted in no EDR activation at all

How has NHTSA characterized these findings:

“At this early point in its investigation, NHTSA officials have drawn no conclusions about the additional causes of unintended acceleration in Toyotas beyond the two defects already known – pedal entrapment and sticking gas pedals.”

NHTSA made it clear that these data are only a small piece of the puzzle, and while driver error is a likely cause of some SUA events, the EDR data don’t make for a compelling case that this is all that’s happening – particularly as independent experts and Toyota continue to document events in which the vehicle diagnostic systems fail to detect unwanted acceleration events.

NHTSA has included in the 58 cases events that have “the possibility of unintended acceleration based on preliminary incident information.”  How many is not known.

We have examined many possible SUA crash events too, and those “possible” SUA events tend to involve single vehicle run-off-the-road crashes with no explanation and no witnesses.  While these events need to be investigated, they are far from the more typical events in which no EDR is activated, the driver, passengers, other witnesses, or in some cases Toyota dealers report first hand engines racing that can’t be explained by mechanical interference or driver error.  Some of these cases were detailed in the Multi-District Litigation complaint against Toyota which cited dealer reports produced by Toyota.  (see Lawsuits Fill in Outline of Toyota Sudden Acceleration Cover-Up)

The NHTSA EDR data don’t address pre-2007 Toyota / Lexus model vehicles as those vehicles are not equipped with EDRs that capture pre-crash data – yet many of the pre-2007 vehicles (including the Camry and Tacoma) have the highest SUA complaint rates and are not part of any recall.

Safety Research & Strategies has already addressed the murkiness and accuracy of Toyota’s EDR’s (see EDR: Toyota’s Electronic Doubt Receptacle).  And since most of the news reports failed to mention it, we would like to remind you again of an important bit of context: Toyota has always stated that the accuracy of the black boxes has never been scientifically validated. In fact, the company fights to keep the data from being used in litigation because it says the EDR data aren’t reliable.

Now, NHTSA’s briefing yesterday noted the agency has done its own EDR validation testing on two 2007 Camry’s and one 2008 Highlander and they have found “Toyota EDR data the same as the data produced by the NHTSA test equipment.” So, what’s the take-away from this set of data:  The Toyota EDRs report accurate information when the vehicle is functioning properly.  What happens when a vehicle experiences an unintended event, sets no error code, and a crash ensues?

In summary, upwards of 95 percent of the SUA reported incidents don’t involve EDR activation.  The recent NHTSA EDR data summary is interesting and worth further examination, but it clearly cannot be extrapolated to the thousands of incidents of SUA in which an EDR didn’t activate and witnesses report racing engines without driver input or mechanical interference.