Agency weighs the need for a ‘black box’ recorder in cars

DETROIT — Federal safety regulators, who allowed auto companies to voluntarily install event data recorders on their vehicles a few years ago, are now looking into whether the systems should be required, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said on Thursday.

David Strickland, administrator of the agency, said it was considering the step in the wake of recalls of millions of Toyota vehicles. He made the disclosure to a subcommittee hearing by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The recorders, sometimes referred to as “black boxes,” like those on airplanes, record events from five to 30 seconds before a crash, and soon afterward.

The devices, which are generally linked to air bags, note information like the speed of the car, whether the driver was applying the brakes and other facts that can be downloaded and analyzed.

In 2006, the safety administration encouraged but did not require automobile manufacturers to install the systems and also did not set a single standard for the way data would be recorded.

That has been an issue in the case of Toyota, whose event recorders are different from those installed on cars from Detroit automakers. Unlike their systems, which can be read through the same diagnostic equipment, the Toyota system requires a special analytic device, and Strickland said a Toyota representative must help interpret the information.

Safety advocates have called for the same system to be required on all automobiles and say the information should be available to the public.

Strickland, in his testimony, said the agency would “evaluate the benefits of mandatory event data recorders in vehicles.”

Since last fall, Toyota has recalled 6 million vehicles in the United States in two major campaigns for potential problems that could cause sudden unintended acceleration, an issue that has affected several automakers.

Toyota recalled one series of vehicles because it said the accelerator pedals could become entangled in floor mats. In a second recall, Toyota said pedals could become stuck because of a faulty pedal design. It is in the midst of making repairs in each recall.

The company also said it would install brake override systems on many vehicles, meant to prevent the car’s electronic throttle from sticking open.

At the hearing, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said the agency’s response to safety defects on automobiles had been “sluggish.” He said he was concerned that the agency lacked appropriate resources, in terms of financing and staff, to fulfill its safety mandate. But Dingell also said that Toyota shared responsibility for failing to act more quickly when reports of problems surfaced.

Strickland, a former Senate staff member who took office on Jan. 4, said he did not think the agency under his leadership had made mistakes in dealing with Toyota, and he said the company had been “very responsive” to the safety agency’s requests for information.

In earlier hearings, some members of Congress accused the agency of being a “lapdog” for the automobile industry. But Strickland objected to that characterization, saying the agency had opened eight investigations into the issue of sudden unintended acceleration.

“A lapdog doesn’t open eight separate investigations,” he said.

But he said Toyota was unique among automobile companies in leaving decisions on recalls to its headquarters in Japan. He said the company could move more quickly on requests from the agency if a Toyota executive in the United States had the authority to act.

In December, the Transportation Department sent officials to Japan at the safety administration’s request to urge Toyota to speed up its actions on the sticking pedal situation. Soon after, Toyota recalled a series of vehicles to repair accelerator pedals and also temporarily stopped selling and producing models involved in the recall.

Strickland said his agency would look at many of the features that have come into question because of the recalls. They include electronic throttle technology, brake override systems and accelerator pedals.

In the last week, the police have reported at least two incidents in which the owners of Prius cars complained of sudden unintended acceleration.

Toyota has recalled 2004 to 2009 models of the Prius because of the floor mat issue, but the cars were not part of the sticking pedal recall because they have a different accelerator pedal. The owners of the cars, however, said their floor mats were not entangled in the pedals. In one case, the floor mats had been securely fastened by a dealer.