In August, the preliminary phase of a study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration partially exonerated Toyota Motor Corp. in reported incidents of unintended acceleration like those that dominated the news in the past year.
The NHTSA preliminary findings were based on examination of data from Toyota’s Event Data Recorders, the so-called “black boxes” many automakers install in vehicles to record key vehicle parameters that happen during an accident. But a subsequent investigation by a major daily newspaper found that in several legal cases, Toyota itself has questioned the validity of data gleaned from black boxes — including its own.
The initial results of a NHTSA study of data from EDRs showed that in the majority of unintended-acceleration cases studied, the driver was not applying the brakes despite the fact the vehicle was reported to be accelerating on its own.
The findings showed that in 58 accidents attributed to unintended acceleration, in more than half, or 35 incidents, the brakes were not applied. The finding seems to lend credibility to the widely believed explanation that many drivers were mistakenly pressing the accelerator pedal when they believed their vehicle was accelerating on its own.
The safety agency researchers also said they had yet to discover evidence of any electrical mechanical malfunctions in the engines’ electronically controlled throttle that could be causing unintended acceleration. When reports of unintended acceleration first became prevalent, Toyota reacted by recalling millions of vehicles worldwide to examine floormats and to replace parts of the gas pedal, both of which the company said might be causing gas pedals to stick open.
Separate from the NHTSA study, Toyota has pointed to evidence gathered by its own EDR black boxes to also refute unintended-acceleration claims, saying the black boxes indicated the drivers were not applying the brakes.
After a high-publicity Congressional inquiry early this year, Toyota used data recovered from black boxes to repudiate unintended acceleration claims in at least two high-profile accidents. But the Washington Post discovered that in the past, Toyota itself questioned the reliability of information provided by its EDRs. The newspaper discovered the company has tried to block the black box data from being used by plaintiffs in certain civil cases in recent years, in one case calling the information from black boxes “far from reliable.”
NHTSA has enlisted the aid of the National Academy of Sciences and NASA in a multi-disciplinary examination of the unintended-acceleration phenomena and has been challenged by Congress to determine the causes and possible remedies for unintended acceleration. The NAS held a public meeting in June to outline its early efforts at defining the problem and analyzing available data, much of which comes from NHTSA databases.
Some of the early information from the NAS effort indicates drivers pressing the accelerator, instead of the brake, are the likely causes in many unintended-acceleration incidents, saying it also may be no coincidence that most occurrences happen at low speeds, when drivers are more likely to be transitioning between pedals.
Whatever the case, it’s not going to be easy to pin down the causes for why vehicles go wild. Despite doubts about the reliability of black-box information, in June the Senate approved versions of the proposed Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 that would require black boxes in all new vehicles, as well as brake-override systems that would prevent the accelerator from operating if the brake pedal is being pushed at the same time. The full Congress has yet to approve it. — Bill Visnic, Motor Matters
Copyright, Motor Matters, 2010