Toyota's Mysterious Black Boxes

Whenever an airplane crashes, investigators focus on the black-box data, which may explain why the plane went down. Though most drivers don't realize it, two thirds of new U.S. automobiles have black boxes, too. They're called "event data recorders." These devices tell the airbags when to deploy, but they also record the car's speed, whether the brake or gas pedal was engaged, and if seat belts were fastened. They've become such a vital tool to car-crash investigators that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued new requirements, which take effect in 2012, standardizing exactly what data the devices measure.

In theory these black boxes could help explain what's causing the sudden acceleration problems that led Toyota to recall millions of vehicles. There's just one catch: Toyota keeps its data secret. Ford, GM, and Chrysler's black boxes use an open platform that allows law-enforcement officials to download data. But only Toyota is able to download the proprietary data off its devices. In fact, there's just one laptop in the entire country capable of reading a Toyota data recorder, and Toyota will download one only under court order, or at the request of law enforcement or the NHTSA.

Though Honda and Nissan also use proprietary data recorders, Toyota's closely guarded system is raising concerns among safety experts. "Every time Toyota downloads these things, they say there's no indication of a problem," says Sean Kane, founder of Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., a consumer safety group. "It's the most opaque system I've ever seen." It's also causing frustration among accident investigators. "Even when they do perform a download, it's usually not that useful," says April Yergin, a Houston-based accident-reconstruction expert. Last month Yergin watched a Toyota rep download data in Southlake, Texas, after a 2009 Avalon hit a tree and landed upside down in a pond, killing all four passengers. A Toyota rep showed up with the special laptop, but it yielded only the car's speed when it struck the tree: 44mph.

Even though Toyota models have had data recorders since 1999, the company downplays the usefulness of the data, saying the devices were intended to aid research on safety systems like airbags. "It was not designed as a tool for accident reconstruction, and we do not believe it yields consistent or reliable data," says Toyota spokesman Mike Michels. Toyota says it's supplied data in about 200 accident cases, and just once did the case turn on the numbers.

Regardless, with lawyers across the country preparing lawsuits against Toyota, there's likely to be a clamor for more data. Michigan Rep. John Dingell is interested in the issue, too: his office supplied NEWSWEEK with a Feb. 3 letter he wrote to Toyota's CEO asking if its black-box data could be easily read by people other than Toyota employees—and if not, why? Yergin says, "They're going to be sorry they've made the system so closed." As Toyota's problems move into the courtroom, the company may have to learn to share.