U.S. Weighs ‘Black Box,’ Brake Override Mandates For All Cars

March 12, 2010

U.S. safety regulators are weighing whether to make “black boxes” mandatory for all new vehicles in response to recent unintended acceleration problems in Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland told a congressional hearing the agency would be looking at the possibility of requiring the devices that can capture data on speed, braking effort and other details.

Strickland also said he was conducting a full review of NHTSA’s legal authority and whether it had the tools necessary to oversee automakers at a time when vehicles are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

“When I was sworn in two months ago, I felt it was important to look at whether there was a need to improve NHTSA’s effectiveness in this era of global marketplace and rapidly changing technologies,” Strickland told a House of Representatives Energy and Commerce subcommittee.

Toyota has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles globally for unintended acceleration since October, either involving accelerators trapped by floormats or a sticky pedal mechanism.

Toyota has also said it will install brake override technology on new vehicles and some older models, to ensure the engine returns to idle if the brake is pressed.

Strickland said NHTSA may make that feature, already found in some other makes, mandatory for all new cars. It is also assessing the need for performance standards for gas pedals to prevent entrapment.

U.S. officials have linked the unintended acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles to five deaths and are examining whether reports of 47 other fatalities may be involved.

Most new vehicles are equipped with electronic recorders and the information captured seconds before and after a crash or other incident can be vital in reconstructing accidents. But their installation is voluntary and the ease of getting to the data varies widely.

Toyota has a more restrictive policy on “black boxes” than U.S. automakers, but has recently pledged to provide more access to them. NHTSA has a prototype Toyota device for reading recorders and is expected to receive more equipment this spring.

Dave McCurdy, representing most major U.S. automakers at the House hearing as the chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers trade group, said industry would work with Congress and the agency on “common sense” approaches.


Answering critics who say that the NHTSA did not investigate complaints about Toyota vehicles thoroughly, the agency is reviewing whether software-driven electronic throttles played any role in the unintended acceleration complaints.

Toyota says its electronic systems are sound and NHTSA previously found no problems.

Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and longtime consumer advocate, blames NHTSA leaders over the years for giving low priority to enforcement and not using their full authority to investigate complaints and possible defects.

“NHTSA’s new leadership must change the agency’s performance and results,” Claybrook said, adding that Congress should start by sharply increasing funding and toughening civil and criminal penalties for violating safety laws.

Strickland, a lawyer and top Senate aide before taking the top job at NHTSA, defended the agency’s handling of Toyota as well as its investigative record.

Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and longtime U.S. industry ally, said NHTSA has been woefully underfunded but its response to Toyota was “sluggish at best.” He also believes Toyota failed to properly address the recall issue and Congress should reserve some focus for industry.

“To reauthorize NHTSA without a view toward compelling better behavior by automobile manufacturers would be a self-defeating exercise,” Dingell said.

Strickland was also questioned about whether a “revolving door culture” has fostered a certain coziness between government and auto companies, a point raised in recent weeks by lawmakers and others looking at Toyota, but underscored more broadly by Claybrook as a long-standing industry issue.

She said NHTSA has been viewed for years by industry as a whole as a “lap dog, not a watchdog.”

Strickland responded sharply, noting no ethical lapses and saying the agency fields 30,000 complaints annually — 10,000 alone in February after Toyota recalls and resulting publicity. He said defect and compliance investigations have resulted in more than 500 recalls.

“A lap dog doesn’t open any investigations,” Strickland added.

(Reporting by John Crawley; editing by Tim Dobbyn and Andre Grenon)

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